An often underestimate influence on Lovecraft’s genre is the immensely popular and long time market-sayer, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, published by Chaosium, Inc. […] The game’s influence extended further than just the gaming community, for Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos authors were quick to discover that Chaosium’s sourcebooks provided a wealth of information, by categorizing and defining Lovecraft’s visions. Soon the game became an encyclopedia, the first point of call for all things Cthulhuoid. This influence is so profound, that new creations which first appeared in the Call of Cthulhu game now appear regularly in the fiction of modern day Lovecraftian authors.
—David Conyers, “Introduction” to Cthulhu’s Dark Cultsviii
Tabletop roleplaying games involve many different types of writing and editing. If you were to sit down and write a new game ex nihilo, you would need to first engage in some top-down game design, probably starting with a concept or pitch for the game—who are the player characters and what do they do?
In Dungeons & Dragons, you are an adventurer and you go on adventures! In Shadowrun, you are a shadowrunner, a mercenary criminal in a fantasy cyberpunk future, and you go on shadowruns, which are illegal jobs that can range from smuggling to murder-for-hire to corporate espionage…only with dragons and elves. In Vampire: the Masquerade, you are a vampire and navigate the complex politics of undead society while striving to sustain yourself and control the beast within. In Call of Cthulhu, you are an investigator and you solve cases and delve into mysteries.
The pitch often but not always contains the basic premise of the setting. Dungeons & Dragons is largely setting agnostic; while the default setting is a quasi-medieval fantasy, the basic rules can (and have) been adapted to many different settings, and players are quite capable of creating their own. For games with specific settings like Shadowrun, a certain amount of setting information has to be brainstormed and written so that players know where the action is taking place. Games set in a historical period of the real world like Call of Cthulhu have a distinct advantage in this case because a great deal of raw setting information is widely available—all you have to do is pick up a history book or delve through old newspaper archive and you can find whatever facts you need for playing in the 1920s or 1890s.
Additional writing involves mechanics—the game’s systems, the mathematical and conceptual specifics that indicate how certain actions like combat or magic are to be resolved, tracked, and sometimes abstracted. It isn’t always possible or desirable, for example, to track how much blood a character loses if they get stabbed; the player marks off a couple hit points on their character sheet and moves on. All of that, and how it integrates into the setting and the gameplay experience, is a matter of game design and editing—complicated stuff!
The last, but not the least, bit of work that goes into a tabletop roleplaying game is what most readers would recognize as narrative fiction: short stories and short-shorts which are set in the setting and are told from the perspective of characters that are in that setting. All the rest of the game give the readers—the prospective players of the game—tools and references so that they can play, but the narrative fiction is what sells the tone and style of the setting, free from any considerations of play.
Most games have to create this from nothing. Dungeons & Dragons took inspiration from Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkein, Fritz Leiber, etc. in creating the game, but none of those authors was specifically writing D&D fiction. Shadowrun added in cyberpunk influences from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, but again, those cyberpunk authors weren’t specifically writing Shadowrun stories—they were writing their own stories from which the Shadowrun authors took inspiration, and then the Shadowrun authors wrote their own stories.
With Call of Cthulhu…the lines are a bit blurrier. What exactly is the difference between a Cthulhu Mythos story, and a Call of Cthulhu story? Is there even a difference?
Unlike Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu was specifically inspired by the body of Cthulhu Mythos fiction created by Lovecraft, his contemporaries, and all those who came thereafter. So while D&D wasn’t designed to let player characters actually journey around Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyborian Age, Call of Cthulhu was designed for player characters to be able to visit Lovecraft’s Innsmouth or Howard’s Stregoicavar, to read the Necronomicon and, if they were very unlucky, to even catch a glimpse of Cthulhu. In that sense, yes, all Call of Cthulhu fiction is part of the Mythos by default—because the game is about playing in that Mythos setting.
However, writing for roleplaying games has very different goals than most narrative fiction. Lovecraft & co. were not obliged to keep any strong continuity between their disparate productions, or to go into detail on the people, places, and objects in those stories. Lovecraft’s map of Arkham and Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age were, in the 1930s, anomalously deep background for the period, and much of that data never made it into any story—but for roleplaying games, that level of detail is relatively common and expected. More, where earlier Mythos writers were free to be loose or even contradictory with their artificial mythology and how magic worked, in a game things typically have to be more concrete—or at least, the format of the game encourages categorization and specification where narrative fiction favors imagination and non-specificity. You can see this in works like the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), which has strong roots in roleplaying gaming.
Beyond the strict game design considerations, there are economic ones. A roleplaying game is typically more than a single book, it is an entire line of products with different subjects which involve the same setting and/or system. Overall development of a game line requires high-level decisions on which books to produce, and how to keep setting material and style consistent between products, because what is written in one book can impact every other book in the line. Line development influences how the setting or its presentation changes over time, and players are often quick to harp on real or imagined discrepancies between rules or setting information between books…and by building on developments from one book to the next, the game setting and rules grow richer and more complex, which often draws readers and players in.
With Call of Cthulhu, this sets a complicated relationship with the Mythos. The game itself takes inspiration and makes reference to a set group of stories and concepts created by Lovecraft & co.—and the line developers, editors, writers, and artists need to make decisions when that material is vague or conflicting. Yet those same creators have no control over what anyone else creates, so while they strive to keep consistency within their own game line, the Mythos continues to proliferate outside of those artificial boundaries…and with many writers and artists taking inspiration from each other, it can be very fuzzy as to whether a given Mythos story is “in” the setting (or settings plural, as it is now) of Call of Cthulhu fiction, or if it is general Mythos fiction that has taken, as David Conyers pointed out, some inspiration from the game and the reference materials it has generated.
For most readers, the distinction is negligible or academic. As Conyers noted, many creators have dipped into or taken inspiration from the volumes of material produced by Chaosium and creators of various related Cthulhu roleplaying games over the years. To take one example, the popular image of Nyarlathotep as a three-legged being with a long tendril for a head and a bloody maw with a long tongue is not referenced anywhere in the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, or other first-generation Mythos authors; it was created for the roleplaying game, but has gone on to become one of the most popular depictions of Nyarlathotep. Some other aspects of the popular Mythos were created or codified by Call of Cthulhu, such as the Order of the Silver Twilight which has featured heavily in spin-off works like Arkham Horror and Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game.
As a roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu tends to be very conservative in terms of mechanics, setting development, and presentation. That is part of the reason that a good deal of the actual innovation in the setting in terms of critically analyzing and rethinking the setting and pitch of how the game is played and who is playing it devolves to related games like Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios.
This has led to a certain domination of the game by nostalgia. The Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) campaign written by Larry DiTillio with Lynn Willis, for example, has been revised, re-packaged, expanded, and re-released for six different editions of the game. Because of the strong influence and constant re-publication of Masks, it has tied into many subsequent Call of Cthulhu products and become something of a cornerstone of the identifiable Call of Cthulhu line identity. Fans have created original art, spin-offs, prequels, sequels, soundscapes, and props based on the campaign. The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast is a direct reference to the campaign, where the player character investigators are good friends of one Jackson Elias.
Madness is the mark of gods, the response to the whisper of ancient secrets, and the unseen hand that turns the world in its disordered course. With it, I have peered beyond mere dream and pattern, beyond childhood impetuosity and adult grief, beyond the analysis of which other men are capable. Accepting madness, I accept the gods and rule well with their gifts thereby.
—The Masks of Nyarlathotep (4th edition, 2010) 185
Last but not least, Masks of Nyarlathotep has inspired Call of Cthulhu fiction such as “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” by Penelope Love. The background is a bit necessary because while this story can be read and enjoyed on its own, it is so tied into the Call of Cthulhu setting and Masks of Nyarlathotep and its ancillary materials to such a degree that is fundamentally a product of the game rather than an independent Mythos story that is just borrowing some names or characters.
Pastiche takes as its hallmark a slavish devotion to the outer forms and tropes of Mythos fiction, but this is something much more relaxed and intimate. Love isn’t trying to ape Lovecraft’s style or anyone else’s, it’s a story that demonstrates a profound amount of Mythos lore as codified by Call of Cthulhu over the previous five decades but doesn’t really seek to capture anything of the Lovecraftian tone of mystery or cosmic horror. It is very much a peek behind the scenes, at the kind of happenings that occur off the page in a regular Mythos story or as a result of decisions made by the Keeper or gamemaster as to how the story will react to what the player characters are doing.
Like “Scritch, Scratch” (2014) by Lynne Hardy, to really appreciate what Love does with this story really requires understanding that background of game design and the culture of Call of Cthulhu as distinct from how other Mythos writers approach the material.
“The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” was published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults(2010). It has not yet been reprinted.
Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.
Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man. — The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.
Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.
Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.
Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.
The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).
In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.
By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.
Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.
It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.
The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.
So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.
King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.
When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.
The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.
If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.
Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.
The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example. —Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.
Buona lettura cimmeri!
This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.
There is a popular conception that Lovecraft ignored economics in his Mythos stories. While he doesn’t deal with dollars and cents, and economic woes aren’t a major theme, this isn’t quite true. Money was largely a distraction in Lovecraft’s stories. When it was present at all, it was often in the form of gold, such as the ancient gold pieces spent by the Terrible Old Man, or the strange pale gold that came out of the refinery at Innsmouth, or that gold which was mixed with starborn Tulu metal in the caverns of K’n-yan in “The Mound.” The United States was still on the gold standard throughout Lovecraft’s lifetime; for a man that paid for his daily meals in dimes and quarters, gold was how he thought of wealth.
The cult of Cthulhu never needed gold. Why would they? Why would Cthulhu want your money?
Money and wealth weren’t major themes in Lovecraft’s work largely because the human emotions and narratives that wrapped around them—greed, desperation, economic stress—weren’t what he wanted to write about. His inheritances and legacies focus on different kinds of wealth: the ancient books of Wizard Whateley, preserved for his grandson’s use; the Innsmouth Look that can’t be bought or sold; the jade amulet pried from the corpse of a warlock, dug out of the grave. In that same sense, Lovecraft’s cults were not designed with the realities of religion in mind. We never hear of collection plates during the rites of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, or a building fun for a proper temple for the Cult of Cthulhu, or a bake sale or potluck for the Starry Wisdom.
Lucy A. Snyder’s “Cthylla” is essentially a cyberpunk narrative, even though it’s set in a contemporary period and there isn’t any real science fiction or overt fantasy elements. Maybe some other label would be more fitting, but “cyberpunk” fits in terms of the themes more than the thematic trappings. Cyber because it is ultimately about computers and human connections, punk because it is a narrative of personal alienation, transformation, and ultimately rebellion against the status quo.
Real-life has shifted the technological and socio-political bases that cyberpunk of the 1980s was built on, but the themes remain relevant. Human augmentation and space travel were tropes of an older style of science fiction, adapted and explored with aplomb and style, but they didn’t really foresee the internet or smartphones, nor did they try to; the break-up of global superpowers and the rise of megacorporations never quite happened as they predicted, the environmental disasters and plagues foreseen have rolled out generally slower…but the point of science fiction is not to accurately predict the future. The point was to present a certain setting of high tech and low life, a background dystopia against which to tell stories where technology and society had reached a point of individual alienation and transformation. You can set a cyberpunk story in today’s world, without cyberware. We’ve arrived at the future, just not quite the one we imagined.
Yet the stars are not yet quite right.
The Temple of the Deep Mother needs your money because it is the megacorp of the setting. Technologically and legally savvy, its tentacles are everywhere, and it exists to squash individual interests and identities to conform to its self-serving goal. The megacorp doesn’t care about its employees; they are literally to be sacrificed, products made to be consumed, costs already factored into a cosmic balance sheet, and to fuel their continued growth and achieve their final goal they need to make movies, build and operate spiritual retreats, pay employees…everything costs money. Probably there’s a big spreadsheet with a bottom line pinpointing the exact cost to raise the Goddess from the deep.
There’s a certain banality to it all; that is to be expected when you pull the curtain back and think about how a cult would actually work in a world with smartphones and an internet. The Temple of the Deep Mother might be a bit more sinister than Raëlism or the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, but if it popped up today it would likely be hard to distinguish outwardly from other new religious movements. In the context of the story, Snyder makes that work. The ultimate result they aim for is mystical and nihilistic… “everybody died and none of this mattered.”
One thing didn’t fit into the program or prophecy: you can’t buy love, and you can do ever so much with computers these days. What if somebody did matter? What if you could make them matter? It is a very human response to rise up against a system that seeks to devalue humanity…and “Cthylla” is a very human story. The lesbian relationship that is developed, the brief interludes of loving someone that suffers from mental illness and attempts suicide, are poignant. They have to be, because they are the backbone of the story. One lives her corporate life, born to die; the other finds in her lover a reason to live and rise above herself.
There’s a certain symmetry between “Cthylla” and “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn—both of them feature a comparable ugliness in a cult that will literally sacrifice its future, its children, in pursuit of its goals, but they get there through different routes. “Take Your Daughters To Work” is industrially-focused, steampunk, visible machines and progress; “Cthylla” is more postmodern. Both may involve tallying lives and dollars, but there’s no way to judge progress for the millenarian project in “Cthylla.” There is a very punk aesthetic to the idea of being raised in a system where you very expressly have no future, except instead of nuclear war the promised apocalypse is some cosmic horror raised from the depths, and if Llewellyn’s story is about the horror of acceptance, Snyder’s story is about what happens if, just maybe, someone fights back.
I had to admit that although I might appear boyish, there was nothing masculine about me. I never had wanted to be male, only to be free to do things men could do. Now I know there have been not a few women who dared the male masquerade to achieve the freedom they were denied, many succeeding lifelong, but they must have been more convincing. Yet I would not be defeated. I devised a bat and cast my net into nearer waters to bring to me what I might not yet go in search of.
Elsie Alice Gidlow was born in England in 1898, one of what would be seven children that her mother bore before 40. The family emigrated to Canada in 1904 and settled in Montreal. She was forced to leave school at 14 to help care for her siblings, and by 15 the intelligent and literature-minded Elsie had entered the workforce. In her autobiography, she would label this chapter of her life “The Outsider.” She sought independence, from her family, from her dreary day job doing shipping advices, from the church that demanded she give her life over to marriage and babies—and freedom to write poetry and to find love. Gidlow already knew she was a lesbian as a teenager, she just didn’t have anyone to explore those feelings with.
A couple years later, Elsie A. Gidlow became involved with amateur journalism:
In the late autumn of 1917, a letter appeared in the people’s column of The Montreal Daily Star. It inquired if any organization of writers and artists existed in the city which a person might join. There was no reply, but a little more than a week later a second letter appeared responding to the first. It stated that a group of writers was being formede and suggested that the inquirer and any others interested should “communicate with the undersigned” at the address given.
Both letters were written by this lonely young woman groping toward her kind, the first under a pseudonym. Over the course of a week, I received nearly a dozen replies from individuals of both sexes asking for information about the proposed group. I invited them all to a meeting at my parents’ on an evening when Father would be away, telling Mother what I was doing.
Given that Gidlow’s autobiography was published about 70 years after the events in question, she may be forgiven for forgetting a few of the finer details. The letters in question actually appeared in 1916, and by 1917 she was already Second Vice-President of the United Amateur Press Association of America:
The amateur journalism movement had begun in the 19th century; individuals who wished to write and print formed clubs and groups to publish their own small magazines, not for sale but simply to share among themselves, for love of the written word. It was largely focused in the United States, but was international in scope, and relatively egalitarian with men and women both often occupying the highest positions in both local clubs and national-level organizations. Two such organization existed in 1916: the National Amateur Press Association was the largest, oldest, and most heterogenous in membership, while the United Amateur Press Association was smaller, younger, and more dedicated to artistic and intellectual literary work.
Unfortunately, in 1912 a contested election split the United Amateur Press Association into two separate organizations. According to “The Literary Decadence of E.G.” (American Amateur Jul 1920, quoted in The Fossils #329, 5), Gidlow joined amateur journalism c.1914 or 1915, and the group she joined was centered around Seattle, while the other was centered around the East Coast; among the foremost members of the East Coast faction at the time was H. P. Lovecraft, who had joined this faction in April 1914. For ease of reference the Seattle/Gidlow organization will be referred to as the United Amateur Press Association of America (UAPAA), and East Coast/Lovecraft faction the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). For the 1915-1916 term Lovecraft was elected First Vice-President of the UAPA; he was elected President of the UAPA in 1917. His counterpart in the UAPAA would be none other than Elsie Alice Gidlow.
For all that they helmed rival factions of the United, Lovecraft and Gidlow were opposites rather than rivals: the two Uniteds had developed into similar but different groups, and many amateur journalists were members of multiple organizations. Both were very intelligent, with limited formal education but compensated for that by being autodidacts and voracious readers, with large vocabularies and strong skills in poetry and prose. Of the two, Lovecraft was either the more efficient administrator or the luckier in having good help and funding: his faction of the United produced the official organ of the group, The United Amateur, reliably during his tenure. Gidlow lacked an Official Editor during her term, and the UAPAA lacked an OE during 1918 as well, which makes “official” activities of the UAPAA difficult to trace during this period.
What Gidlow did produce was Les Mouches Fantastiques.
Inspired by a group in New York who published their own newspapers and magazines and were known as the Amateur Press Association, I spoke to Roswell about doing the same. “We are not exactly amateurs,” he said, “I’m paid for my work on The Star and am considered a pro. You have been paid for your stuff in the Bookman and other rags. Why not? We could bring out a mimeographed paper for the fun of it.” […] We formed a group, myself named president, and planned a publication. Roswell and I were the co-editors. Someone knew of a mimeograph machine we must use that produced somewhat smudgy looking, glaring purple type.
My recollection is that much of the matter was also purple. We were by intention iconoclastic, mocking hypocrisies and smugness. Our first few issues were named Coal from Hades. Later, at Roswell’s instigation, we changed the name to Les Mouches Fantastiques (The Fantastic Flies). About half the material was written by Roswell and me. Besides our poetry, he contributed translations from Verlaine, articles on “the intermediate sex,” and one-act plays sympathetically presenting love between young men. My poetry was obviously addressed to women. My editorials satirized what I saw as society’s stupidities and injustices and the wrongness of the war. The hundred or so copies went locally to our friends and the amateur journalists (“AJ’ers”) in various parts of the U.S.
Roswell George Mills was a Candian poet, journalist, and outspoken homosexual; he quickly became Gidlow’s friend and partner in Les Mouches Fantastiques, and through their bohemian, convention-defying journal they came into contact with other LGBTQ+ folks in the amateur journalism movement—including F. Graeme Davis, an Episcopal priest who also happened to be Offical Editor of the National Amateur Press Association during the 1917-1918 term and NAPA president during the 1918-1919 term. Gidlow claimed that Davis was homosexual, and carried on a brief but intense affair with Mills in Montreal; Davis certainly was full of praise for Les Mouches Fantastiques, Gidlow, and Mills…and it was through his efforts that Lovecraft, Gidlow, and Mills joined the NAPA, while simultaneously being members of their respective United factions.
Despite Gidlow’s recollection that “we formed a group,” the reality must have been more complex than that. She had obviously been a member of the UAPAA for some years before she became President, and she submitted work for other amateur journals which were duly published. Tracing her amateur journalism career is difficult: given both the low print run, the non-U.S. source, and the nature of amateur journalist publications, it is understandable that very few copies of Les Mouches Fantastiques survive in university collections or archives to this day. Other amateur journals are likewise rare, and the contents poorly indexed.
Yet we know that she did make a name for herself in amateur circles, and that her work was read, because Lovecraft commented on it:
The esthetic Elsa Gidlow’s outburst could undoubtedly be a great deal worse, as free verse is reckoned. Of the “two lovers that woo her unceasingly”, I advise her to choose oblivion That is the best way for all vers-libristes. Her colleague, Rossy George, tangles himself all up in some words & phrases, in which a trace of metre is observable. His spasms, however, are less definite in thought (if, indeed, there be any definiteness in imagistical chaos!) & less meritorious altogether.
Lovecraft here refers to Gidlow’s poem “The Two Lovers” and Mills’ poem “Once,” which appeared in W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Vagrant #7 (Jun 1918). The comments are less directed at the content of the work than the form; Lovecraft was then a noted “metrical mechanic” and an opponent of “free verse” who thought poetry ought to rhyme. Nor was Lovecraft the only one who took exception to Gidlow’s poetry; his close friend Alfred Galpin conceived and wrote a parody, which was published in Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative vol. 4, no. 1 (Jul 1918):
I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly: One is very beautiful; His countenance is as the face of a god, and radiates a light that is intoxicating; Through his transparent skin I can see the warm blood leaping in his veins; The even beat of his pulse is as the restless tide of a thousand oceans; But he is very fickle. I know that he would love me well, but only for a little while. Yes, he is very fickle. He is as a little yellow bee that draws the warm honey from flowers, then passes on his way; He is as a seducer that robs young maidens of their sweetnesses, and then mocks at them; He is as a radiant morning sun-cloud that swallows the little lingering pale stars; Yes, he is very beautiful and desirable, but he is very cruel.
The other is not fair or lovely: He has long fingers with nails that are pointed and tipped with purple, And his hair that flows free is iron grey and very lank; There are little grooved wrinkles in his brow that make him seem very old; But his eyes are young. They are as the eyes of a child that looks upon suffering innocently, not comprehending, And yet they are so compassionate; I love his eyes because they are so compassionate. His soul is very beautiful: It is a pool of light that is depthless; (I should like to bathe in that pool).
I think that he is constant. He would love me very deeply, and through the forever that is ageless; Yes, he is very constant. He would hold me in his restful arms and touch my lips with soft kisses; He would cover my eyes, that burn hotly, with little green leaves to cool them; He would breathe sad songs to me so sweetly they would seem happy; Ah, he is unlovely to look upon, but his soul is very beautiful.
They are Life and Death.
I have two lovers who woo me unceasingly: Which shall I take?
Two Loves (After, and with apologies to, Miss Elsie Alice Gidlow in the June Vagrant)
I have two loves, who haunt me unceasingly. Which shall I choose?
One is ugly to men’s sight, and arouses repulsion in them; Not so to me; for I know the true heart within. Yes, he is ugly and repulsive to many— His robust mien and his plebeian companions dishonour him. But they are as he: For his heart is as pure gold, the gold Scorned in sham by the would-be poetic, but ever true and useful.
He is constant, and I could love him forever; Yea, with dishnour stamped on his brow by the mob, I yet do love him. For his heart is as the heart of a thrifty and comely woman sought by all of thought.
He hath a hard skin, and is difficult of acquaintance; But to him who searcheth beneath, he is a rich mine of delicious treasure.
In my sensuous dreams I behold him, and long for him; When all the world is heartless and I am weary of it, Then do I long for him.
The other I would shun; for he is traitorously fair and beauteous: But he draws me to him inevitably, as the raft through many streams to the ocean.
His soul burneth as the hot torrents that prompt love— Ever youthful and daring in heart, but changing ere ultimately carefree; Inspiring hesitant fear at a distance, but enticing and ever victorious.
He is not constant, Except as he forceth me to everlasting constancy; For he is exacting. He draws me to him and I drink of his luscious beauty— But O the aftermath! The satient afterwhile!
He would destroy me; He has become a part of my soul, and meaneth my ruin; And yet I should die without him.
His beauty sparkles, and is given fastidious care. His speech flows swiftly and fluently, and is the language of all who are subject to his sway. Yea, him I long for passionately, and the other is only a comfort.
I have two loves who woo me unceasingly: One is bologna and the other Scotch Whiskey: Which shall I take?
Lovecraft had initially submitted this parody to W. Paul Cook for The Vagrant, but Cook refused it for unknown reasons. Such games were far from uncommon in amateur journals, and Lovecraft would try his own hand at such poetic mockery, such as “Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” (1920). Lovecraft was amused:
The general reception of your “Two Loves” is most gratifying to me, both as an endorsement of my own opinion and otherwise. I cannot suggest just the professional magazine for it, but Mo’s suggestion will undoubtedly be satisfactory. […] The Association must not be denied the privilege of seeing it, after having endured the original. Did I tell you that Miss Gidlow is President of the rival “United” Amateur Press Association which split off from ours in 1912? It is a peurile thing, with very easy literary standards. Some idea of its calibre may be gainedby noting the opinion of the majority of its members regarding the weird & wondrous work of the Mills-Gidlow duet. They call it “very highbrow”!! At least, this is what Cook informs me, & his acquaintance with this circle is fairly representative.
This is the first mention of Gidlow or Mills in Lovecraft’s letters. Cook was apparently a recipient of an issue or two of Les Mouches Fantastiques, who in turn passed it on to Lovecraft (LAGO215). The same issue of The Conservative which contained Galpin’s parody “Two Loves” also contains Lovecraft’s review Gidlow & Mills’ LGBTQ-heavy amateur journal, which reads in part:
The reader may, up to date, unearth nothing save a concentrated series of more or les sprimitive and wholly unintellectual sense-impressions; instinct, form, colour, odour, and the like, grouped in all the artistic chaos characteristic of the late Oscar Wilde of none too fragrant memory. Much of this matter is, as might be expected, in execrable taste. Now is this Life? […]
It seems to The Conservative that Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills, instead of being divinely endowed sers in sole possession of all Life’s truths, are a pair of rather youthful persons suffring from a sadly distorted philosophical perspective. Instead of seeing Life in its entirety, they see but one tiny phase, which they mistake for the whole. What worlds of beauty—pure Uranian beauty—are utterly denied them on account of their bondage to the lower regions of the senses! It is almost pitiful to hear superficial allusions to “Truth” from the lips of those whose eyes are sealed to the Intellectual Absolute; who knows not the upper altitudes of pure though, in which empirical forms and material aspects are nothing.
The editors of Les Mouches complain very bitterly of the inartistic quality of amateur journalism; a complaint half just and half otherwise. The very nature of our institution necessitates a modicum of crudity, but if Miss Gidlow and Mr. Mills were more analytical, they could see beauty in much which appears ugly to their rather astigmatic vision.
There is a bit of a pot-calling-the-kettle black here: Gidlow was only eight years younger than Lovecraft himself, who was not yet 28 at the time and had only emerged into amateur journalism four years previously. Lovecraft did not sign this editorial, but was taking on the rhetorical persona of the old and cynical Conservative of the title of his amateur journalism, even though he and Gidlow were pretty comparable on that score. It is doubtful Lovecraft missed the content of the issue: the reference to Oscar Wilde, who had been jailed for homosexuality in 1895, is a little too pointed. The reference to “Uranian” beauty does not appear to be a reference to the sexological term for homosexuality per se, or to the pedophilic Uranian poets, but the older Classical reference that underlies it: the love of spiritual beauty that supersedes love of physical beauty. It is also possible that Lovecraft used the term without understanding its different possible meanings in the context of homosexual subject matter.
Unfortunately, while Lovecraft’s letters and amateur journal writings have been saved and published; we don’t have Gidlow or Mills’ take on this critique, at least not directly. They could easily have seen it; if W. Paul Cook could send a copy of Les Mouches Fantastiques to Lovecraft, he could easily have mailed a copy of The Conservative to Montreal. Gidlow’s autobiography does not focus much on the response to Les Mouches, aside from a correspondent in Cuba who was appreciative of the openly homosexual content, and Graeme Davis’ arrival in Montreal and his affair with Mills. Davis wrote a lengthy review of Les Mouchesin his own amateur journal The Lingerer in 1919.
A total of five issues of Les Mouches would be produced from 1918 to 1920, the fifth and final being dated May 1920. Unlike earlier issues, the final issue was finely printed rather than mimeographed. It is not clear if Lovecraft saw anything more than that single 1918 issue of Les Mouches; his letters are silent on Gidlow and Mills for two years. Then, in 1920, he mentions them again:
The hedonist, following Aristippus and Gidlow-Mills, believes in seeking the wildest delights of sense, and ina accepting all the consequences both to the individual and to society. That is what he calls “living”—the poor fish! He thinks the calm and unemotional epicurean is only half alive; that he misses something in avoiding the violent alternation of emotional exaltation and depression.
The attitude is identical to 1918; perhaps Lovecraft had no other prompt than that the conversation had turned to pleasure-seeking as a philosophical issue once again. Yet only the next month, the subject came up again:
As to day-dreams & Rossie George—I am afraid that the wildest of his flights is rather tame compared with what I have seen in other universes whilst asleep. He can’t even get off this one poor planet, or rise much above the animal instincts here. Carcass-worshippers like Rossie & Elsie make me so infernally sick & tired that I lack patience with them. This reminds me—I never shewed you that putrid fellow’s letter, which he wrote me last summer. I promised to do so, & will enclose it herewith. My personal comment is twofold: (a) Nobody home. (B) Throw it in the garbage pail behind the house & cover well with chloride of lime Kindly return this bit of mental & moral aberration for preservation as a horrible example in my private museum of mental pahtology.
R. G. Mills’ letter to H. P. Lovecraft is not known to survive, so we can only speculate as to the contents. It seems clear from context that Lovecraft did not destroy the letter, and he seemed willing to lend it to his friend Kleiner, which argues against it having anything blatantly obscene (by 1919 U.S. mail standards), and one can’t quite imagine Mills asking for a photograph of Lovecraft so that he could daydream about him as Gidlow claims Mills did with Davis. It seems unlikely that Mills openly flouted his homosexuality in the letter either, as Lovecraft remarked elsewhere that “I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty” (LJS 146), and he would only have been 28 or 29 in the summer of 1919. The most likely content would probably be simply a response or rebuttal to Lovecraft’s critique in The Conservative; but perhaps there was something more. Lovecraft would go on to write:
Some persons shrink from a fellow like Rossie Mills when young because they deem him an unique & leprous abnormality; yet tolerate him in later years because they lean that most mortals share his foulness. I shrank from such in youth merely because I disliked them & was not like them. And in later life I still shrank from them, for exactly the same reason. I am the same & they are the same—& it does not matter to me that their qualities are more widely diffused than I had fancied.
There are two possibilities here: either Lovecraft was (despite his later letter) aware that Mills was homosexual and this is simply homophobia, or Lovecraft was not aware Mills was homosexual and this is some other prejudice. While we can’t know for absolute certain which it was, there may be a clue in Lovecraft’s other letters and Gidlow’s autobiography. In a later letter Lovecraft recalled meeting Gordon Hatfield in 1922:
Have you seen that precious sissy Gordon Hatfield that I met in Cleveland? […] When I saw that marcelled what is it I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it! It used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Elgin’s and gaze soulfully upward. It didn’t like me and Galpin—too horrid, rough and mannish for it!
LGBTQ+ folks in the 1920s faced not only legal and social discrimination but genuine violence for nonconformance with expected gender roles and behavior, or even suspected homosexual behavior. While Lovecraft did not engage in such violence, he was clearly aware of the social implications and was reacting as he thought was appropriate. It is notable that Lovecraft did not have that reaction to other homosexuals he met, such as Samuel Loveman and Hart Crane. In another letter he expands:
Another thing many nowadays overlook the fact that there are always distinctly effeminate types which are most distinctly not homosexual. I don’t know how psychology explains them, but we all know the sort of damned sissy who plays with girls & seems to dislike boys, & who—when he grows up—is a chronic “cake-eater”, hanging around girls, doting on dances, acquriing certain feminine mannerisms, intonations & tastes, & yet never having even the slightest perversion of erotic inclinations.
In her autobiography, Gidlow writes that Roswell George Mills was “ambiguously beautiful” and when not at work “delicately made up and elegantly dressed, wearing exotic jewelry and as colorful clothes as he dared” (ELSA 74). While Lovecraft never met Mills in person, if he did get the impression from the letter received that Mills was a “sissy”—for example, if it was sent on perfumed stationery—that might be enough to satisfy the “putrid” comment.
Lovecraft’s thoughts on homosexuality, gender conformity, and early-20th century crises of masculinity aside, Elsie Alice Gidlow was not idle. In 1920 shortly after her 21st birthday she immigrated from Montreal to New York City, much as Lovecraft himself would do a few years later, away from her parents and her old life. The transition was marked by a change in name: Elsie became Elsa, which had been an occasional byline. While no longer president of the UAPAA (and the cessation of Les Mouches Fantastiques may have been due in part to her precarious finances at the time), she was still involved with amateur journalism…and as it happened, both Gidlow and Lovecraft were members of NAPA, reading and submitting to some of the same amateur journals.
In the United Amateur vo. 19, no. 5 (May 1920), an unsigned editorial “The Pseudo-United” records an attempt to recruit members of the UAPAA for the UAPA—particularly a branch of the UAPAA that had set up in Flatbush in Brooklyn—but the effort was rebuffed. While Gidlow isn’t named, and there is no clear indication she was involved, if she was still involved in the UAPAA while in New York, her word as former president might have carried some weight. The article, right down to the name, echoes some of the sentiments in a previous piece (“The Other United,” United Amateur vol. 16, no. 9, Jul 1917) that ran during Gidlow’s presidency of the UAPAA.
That she was still involved in amateur journalism is clear because she published an essay “Life for Life’s Sake” in The Wolverine (Oct 1920); the same amateur journal which would publish Lovecraft’s “The Street” (Dec 1920), “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (Mar 1921), and “The Nameless City” (Nov 1921). Gidlow’s essay begins:
Now that all the gods are cast down, now that they, products of the golden dust of human imagination that they were, are indistinguishable from the dust of the dead things that they mix with, now that they have become altogether disintegrated, so many are asking, What of us, what of the universe? What of life, to what purpose everything? Truly the first new blankness that comes after one’s exchange of Gods and Eternities for Nothingness is very crushing, devitalizingly deadening, and the resultant persisting thot is, This is life, then death; a flash of rainbow, then endless, cold grey; a light, then no light, something─nothing…middle distance thot. There are also the extremes: extreme nearness and the furthermost distance, and with these two the thot is the same, that thot being─what but Life for Life’s sake?
Lovecraft would respond directly to Gidlowwith an answering essay: “Life for Humanity’s Sake” (American Amateur Sep 1920), which runs in part:
Miss Gidlow has discovered the fact that there is no vast supernatural intelligence governing the cosmos—a thing Democritus could have told her several centuries B.C.—and is amazingly distrubed thereat. Without stopping to consider the possibility of acquiescence in a purposeless, mechanical universe, she at once strives to invent a substittue for the mythology she has cast aside; and preaches a new and surprising discovery the ancient selfish hedonism whose folly was manifest before the death of its founder Aristippus. There is something both amusing and pathetic about the promulgation of hedonism in this complex age of human interdependence.
This response was aimed not just at Gidlow, but also at fellow amateur and Lovecraft correspondent Maurice W. Moe who had likewise responded to Gidlow’s piece, which evidently dealt with the consideration of ethics once religion has been repudiated. While Lovecraft points out what he feels are flaws in both their arguments equally, his tone is patronizing…and Gidlow had perhaps been patronized once too often by amateur journalists. She at last responded with “The Literary Decadence of E.G.”, which reads in part:
There is Mr. Goodenough with his rhymed very-moral maxims; Mr. Lovecraft with his morbid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand; Mr. Ward Phillips who admires Poe wisely and far too well, since he mimics him so laboriously; and a host of others, male and female, who apart from having no new word to speak, cannot write three consecutive rhymed verses in even metre, although they raise their voices tontinuously and wildly against “modern” poetry and that in their opinion heretical expression of a perverted intellect, vers libre.
This opinion, in the main, applies to the N.A.P.A. The “United” displays more youth and spirit but less, if possible, literary ability, its A.J.’s being mostly filled with slangy recruiting propaganda or banal opinions on President Wilson’s or somebody else’s attitude under such and such circumstances. The contributors to these journals also run to imitative verse.
The possibilities of Amateur Journalism are limitless. That I have always believed. But its development is retarded by the majority of its members’ too-obvious limitations.
“Ward Phillips” was one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms. Amateur journalists, including Lovecraft, responded:
In the July American Amateur, the precocious Miss Elsie (alias Elsa) A. Gidlow of Les Mouches fame refers with admirable courtesy to “Mr. Lovecraft with his morid imitations of artists he seems not even able to understand”. Possibly Mistress Elsie-Elsa would prefer that the amateurs follower her own example, and perpetrate morbid imitations of morbid artists whom nobody outside the asylum is able to understand.
H. P. Lovecraft, “Lucubrations Lovecraftian,” United Co-Operative vol. 1, no. 3 (Apr 1921), Collected Essays 1.284
Miss Gidlow mentions Mr. Lovecraft. I confess I’ve tried manfully to read his poetry and have gone to sleep over it. Yet I have read his few stories with genuine pleasure. I recall that one night I let the moon shine in my eyes because I was afraid to get up and pull down the shade after reading one of his stories, “Dagon” I think it was. No doubt other readers would toss it aside and remark that they could do better than that. Perhaps they could and perhaps some of them tried.
Pearl K. Merritt, “Amateur Journalism is Not Futile” in American Amateur Sep 1920, reprinted in The Fossil #329, 34-35
Lovecraft had begun to publish more fiction in the amateur press, including “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant, May 1920), and Gidlow’s comment seems aimed at those early works. His response is a bit juvenile, amounting to little more than “I’m rubber and you’re glue.” It isn’t known if Gidlow read their replies.
Gidlow left amateur journalism by the end of 1920, though W. Paul Cook published a poem some years later in 1927. In 1923, Elsa Gidlow published On a Grey Thread, considered to be the first book of lesbian poetry published in the United States; she would travel widely, write and lecture, and cement her place in the history of LGBTQ+ literature. Her autobiography ELSA is said to be the first where the author “outs” herself as a lesbian, without a pseudonym.
Lovecraft continued his own life as well, met and married Sonia H. Greene. Their tumultuous marriage would coincide with Greene holding the UAPA presidency for two terms, 1923-1924 and 1924-1925, with Lovecraft as Official Editor. Despite his best efforts, without his leadership recruitment stalled and the UAPA became moribund around 1926; the UAPAA continued on, and Lovecraft’s later dealings with amateur journalism in the 1930s exclusively involve the National Amateur Press Association.
While Lovecraft’s interaction with Elsa Gidlow, R. G. Mills, and Les Mouches Fantastiques was slight, the encounters stuck with him and cropped up in a few of his later writings. In a later issue of The Conservative (#12, Mar 1923) he would recall them in an editorial:
Shall we remain comfortably cloistered with out Milton and Wordsworth, never again to know the amusing buzzing of such quaint irritants as Les Mouches Fantastiques?
The same year, while Lovecraft was serving as interim president of NAPA for the remainder of the 1922-1923 term, his tone is a bit different:
Intelligent controversy will shortly receive a stimulus from the appearance in our microcosm of Mr. H. A. Joslen, the first thorough “young modern” we have had since the Gidlow-Mills days. —H. P. Lovecraft, “President’s Message”, National Amateur #45 (May 1923), Collected Essays1.334
Mr. H. A. Joslen’s Gipsy[sic] is an unique and by no means unwelcome addition to amateur journalism, supplying the place of the long-departed Les Mouches Fantastiques. —H. P. Lovecraft, The Conservative #13 (Jul 1923), Collected Essays1.343
This does not appear to be Lovecraft giving any kind of backhanded compliment to Joslen or his amateur journal Gypsy, as elsewhere Lovecraft spoke approvingly of Joslen’s youth, energy, and determination to maintain a high literary quality in his amateur journal. While Lovecraft as a metrical mechanic was averse to free verse, and his cosmic philosophy would have been at odds with any philosophy that devolved to overwhelming preoccupation with physical pleasure—he never complained of the overall quality of Les Mouches Fantastiques‘ production, nor accused it of being of low literary quality. Perhaps he did have a sneaky respect for Gidlow & Mills and their skill and efforts, even if he disagreed with the specific content.
The last mention in Lovecraft’s published letters involved the contents of an old issue of The Recluse (Oct 1919), as part of a list of notable contents of that amateur journal:
Furthermore—an exotic Chinese piece called “Tea Flowers” (based on Wilde & suggesting Lesbianism) by Roswell George Mills, & a rather powerful ghoul-poem, “The Mould-Shade Speaks” by Winifred V. Jackson. A rather bizarre issue on the whole.
“Tea Flowers” was a play dedicated to “Sappho,” which was Mills’ nickname for Gidlow. Probably, Lovecraft never knew that his young friend R. H. Barlow was homosexual—and perhaps wasn’t aware that in this off-hand mention, he provided a clue that there were more folk like him involved in amateur journalism, or at least those who dared to write on themes like Wilde’s “love that dare not speak its name.”
It was probably Lovecraft’s first encounter with a lesbian; possibly the only one we have any verifiable record of. If that is the case it’s not clear if Lovecraft was even aware of it. His critiques of Les Mouches Fantastiques show he was not totally unaware of such things, but whether he recognized or knew of such matters at that early date, or simply glossed it all as Decadent literature is unclear.
The whole affair is little more than a footnote in the lives of writers that have gone on to be remembered for other things: Lovecraft for his weird fiction, Gidlow for her poetry and autobiography. Most of what we know about the interactions, which happened not in person but through the snail’s pace of scattered pieces published in amateur journals months apart, are from Lovecraft’s side of things—and even his biographies do not record the tiff. Nor does Gidlow mention Lovecraft in her autobiography; six or seven decades is more than enough time for emotions to fade and memories to grow dim. Yet they did play a role in one another’s story…and that story was entwined, informed, and shadowed by the growing awareness of and discrimination applied to LGBTQ+ folks.
For more on Elsa Gidlow, Lovecraft, and amateur journalism please check out:
“Lavender Ajays of the Red Scare Period: 1917-1920” by Ken Faig, Jr., in The Fossil #329.
Gidlow’s ajay poems and materials related to the history of the United Amateur Press Association, Gidlow’s presidency, and possible early amateur journalism activities are reprinted in The Fossil #332 and #334.
A Jewish Neurodivergent Looks At Lovecraft by Matthew Kirshenblatt
The population [of New York City] is a mongrel herd with repulsive Mongoloid Jews in the visible majority, and the coarse faces and bad manners eventually come to wear on one so unbearably that one feels like punching every god damn bastard in sight. —H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Nov 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 81
I have mixed feelings about H.P. Lovecraft. I remember when I was an adolescent seeing his works in bookstores, and wondering just what kind of writer would have a last name such as his. As I got older and more fascinated with horror I just assumed that Lovecraft was a writer that focused on murder and the macabre, not unlike Edgar Allan Poe. This quaint idea was challenged when I began to encounter the idea of Cthulhu in geek and alternative culture, but even then before I even knew what cosmic horror was about I wondered if something like Cthulhu made sense? I pondered just how Cthulhu, this being that seemed to be a giant humanoid with an octopus face and bat wings—this bizarre hybrid—fit into a genre that housed Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, and other elements of literary horror.
Eventually, I did make it to Lovecraft. It was while I was untethered during undergrad, going far beyond my original five-year plan and trying to regain my initial drive, that I began reading Joyce Carol Oates’ anthologies, where I found some of Lovecraft’s works. My first Lovecraft stories were either “The Tomb” or “The Rats in the Walls.” It was the latter story that made me realize that Lovecraft’s scope of horror was far beyond murder mysteries and the subtle uncanny, and it was more of a primer into a vast and inhuman universe shaped by either uncaring or malicious forces behind everything that humanity thinks it knows. Of course, “The Rats in the Walls” was also the same story that introduced me to a cat with a fairly unfortunate, and downright racist, name. I came to The Dream Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death where, in an introduction written by Neil Gaiman, the latter flat-out writes: “He was a believer in unpleasant doctrines of racial superiority, and was an Anglophile.” To be honest with you, I actually have no idea where I first heard that Lovecraft was antisemitic but it was, and still is, always in the back of my mind even as I continue to immerse myself in the eldritch world that he left behind him.
For example, as someone who is Jewish, I think about “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and even “The Doom That Came to Sarnath” from the perspective of genocide. As much as I know now that Lovecraft is racist, it is fascinating to consider that at least with regards to those stories he doesn’t seem to be advocating for the extermination of other peoples. In fact, I tend to interpret “Sarnath” as a cautionary tale of genocide itself. It is true that Lovecraft goes out of his way to describe the people of Ib, who had been murdered and whose deaths were celebrated for millennia, as having “bulging eyes, pouting, flabby lips, and curious ears, and were without voice,” which for me are characteristics reminiscent in stereotypical caricatures made about Jews, but he also takes great pains to describe how the people of Sarnath pay for killing them, and desecrating the god to which they once prayed. Perhaps the descriptions he wrote were not intended consciously to refer to Jews, or other ethnicities, but after being born into a culture that has been persecuted and labeled under similar words, I lean into that reading.
“The Shadow Over Innsmouth” describes the Deep One hybrids that live in that town as having “the Innsmouth look,” though while their “narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, staring eyes that never seem to shut, and their skin ain’t quite right. “Rough and scabby” seems less like semitic caricatures and more Polynesian or Far East Asian ones; I correlate it with what Lovecraft has said about “Mongoloid” features and “coarse faces.” Neither description in either story gives me a visceral reaction of feeling attacked or targeted with regards to my ethnic identity. Jews were not being used as the basis for the people of Ib, or the Deep One hybrids, but at the same time there are parallels there that I can’t particularly ignore. I think about “Innsmouth” in particular a lot, and while Bobby Derie in his Deep Cut article “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys believes that the hybrids are taken to enemy internment as opposed to concentration camps, I like how other Mythos writers taking up Lovecraft’s legacy and reworking elements of it, such as Ruthanna Emrys in her “Litany of Earth” and the rest of her Innsmouth Legacy novels, actually go there. Emrys in particular, although she has Japanese-Americans eventually find themselves in the camps with the remaining hybrids, deals with the aftermath of “Innsmouth.” She fleshes out the Deep One hybrid families, what they suffered through in the detention centres, and what Aphra Marsh, as one of the few survivors of that genocide and cultural and historical erasure by a hostile government, is going through as she attempts to rebuild her life. The “monsters” are more clearly humanized in this retelling, and I can relate to them in this way due to our peoples’ history with this kind of collective trauma, and how they deal with that fact.
I relate to Lovecraft’s “Innsmouth” in another sense as well. I come specifically from a Conservative Judaic background. Though I don’t particularly practice the religious aspects of it as an adult, antisemitism has affected my life, and how my family wanted me to experience the world. What I gleaned from my family was the idea that the world outside of our cultural bubble was inherently poisonous, or tainted: that one shouldn’t become too familiar with outsiders, or ingest anything that is meat-based outside my home, or not checked for the proper ingredients: otherwise you could get sick, or compromised. Growing up, I would have been castigated for eating something non-kosher, or having a relationship with a non-Jewish person beyond friendship. The world was made out to be a large and terrifying space when I was growing up and one in which I should interact with as little as possible unless I wanted to become ill, used, or abused by outside powers: that I should stay within a little island of structured rules, and remain safe. This ties into a lot of the themes within Lovecraft’s fiction, but it comes back to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” again. Not only is Innsmouth insular and hostile to outsiders for a reason, and one that’s realized at the end of the story, but the protagonist himself realizes he isn’t a normal, or mundane person but one of the people he is afraid of, or never particularly understood. Robert Olmstead is an outsider trapped on the borders between worlds, social and metaphysical, even if he doesn’t know it: or doesn’t want to. Olmstead has to deal with a certain level of self-hatred for reporting on his people, and I wish someone like Emrys would revisit that character in her series as I feel it is a missed opportunity. In attempting to live a secular life I’ve felt like I’ve had to “pass,” I don’t want to be determined by the prejudices of bigots and ignorant people, I do want to live my life away from the strictures and fears of my culture as I was brought up. In some ways, it feels like a betrayal to do so. Olmstead and I are not exactly the same in that regard. He never knew what his ancestry was until after the events at Innsmouth, while I’ve known about my ethnicity for my entire life, and no one ever let me forget it. However, perhaps there was a part of Olmstead that felt like he was outside of society, that didn’t fit in, even if he didn’t know why this was the case at the time. Perhaps this is why he was so keen on exploring his genealogy: to find out who he was, but to reassure himself of what he was too. I think where we diverge is that Olmstead feels like he’s betrayed a people he doesn’t know, when he informs on them to the Federal government after his escape, and later when his transformation begins he feels like he needs to atone. Whereas while Olmstead had to fight his inner demons of revulsion towards something alien inside himself and came to terms with it by accepting it and that community, I feel like I have had to deal with those internalized elements—of feeling confined by a sense of insular identity, and a history of prejudice—by distancing myself from all of it, turning my back on it, and attempting to assert my independent self. In many ways, I feel like I am an outsider in more ways than one.
This ties into my neurodivergence, which informs how I experience life as a bit like the vast, weird, almost senseless universe of Lovecraft and the human world’s supposed place within that cosmology. In the North American education system, I have been considered learning disabled in mathematics and spatial areas: so essentially I have dyscalculia, and difficulties navigating or even understanding geography. In addition, I have anxiety and depression, for which I see a therapist.
Because of my neurodivergence, my family monitored me as closely as they could, terrified that because of my spatial difficulties I would get lost, I wouldn’t be able to understand the price of something in an interaction, or I would come across as “strange” to somebody else and be subject to ridicule or exploitation. Even to this day I fidget and do what is called “stimming,” where I rock back and forth. I talk to myself a lot. Social cues were something I had difficulty picking up on, and even learning how to read and speak took me a longer time to figure out than others. I wasn’t sociable, but I—and to my family’s express relief—learned how to “pass” enough. Until, sometimes, I didn’t. Even now, I don’t.
Perhaps this is why Lovecraft’s sense of cosmicism is almost comforting. Instead of being in a reality where everything is sensible, and I’m not, perhaps it is this world that is inherently nonsensical, even volatile, where even most other people are hard to understand. It’s cynical, almost over the border of misanthropy, but it makes more sense than the alternative: especially when you feel like you are peering at it from the outside. In fact, you would think that “The Outsider” is an easy story for me to relate to based on my personal experience. However, it’s more than not fitting into a society or a group, but rather having the illusion of “being normal” or “passing” as such, getting broken when you look closely into the mirror of the world. The protagonist in “The Outsider” has forgotten who they are. Perhaps it was by design, or maybe it is time that did it, a long solitary existence lost underground. Whatever the case, when the protagonist sees themselves—truly sees what they are—it shakes them to their very core. For me, I have attempted to downplay my ethnicity for so long due to dealing with my insular familial environment and its attempt to ingrain a perspective of a world inherently prejudiced against me but—more than that—tried to “pass” as “normal.” Except that when I was confronted with having great difficulty getting employment and hesitating and procrastinating over doing the simplest daily things to survive, I realized I wasn’t normal. I’m not normal.
In Lovecraft’s “The Quest of Iranon” you have a wandering, seemingly ageless singer who is trying to find the beloved “Aira” of his youth amid people who don’t know where it is, or understand what he’s looking for, or why, only to find out towards the end that it never existed, that he made it up, that he’d always been this dreamy, lost, strange, child that couldn’t fit into the world such as it was, and this revelation leads to him giving up on everything completely. I know that Emrys herself in the TOR Review I’m Too Sexy For This City greatly disparages this story, but I think that I relate to it differently because of my spatial awareness, or the lack thereof, and that terrifying sense of impermanence: along with the need to be in a place—or make a place—where I can feel the opposite of that as neurodivergent person. “The Quest of Iranon” is one of my favourite Lovecraft stories because I have an affinity to that protagonist who, like me, started off from a place where he felt laughed at, or pitied, and just wanted to find his dream in a seemingly hostile world. In the end, he just wanted to find a sense of home. And if Iranon couldn’t use his disciplines to find this home, he could use them to make one: if only for a time.
One aspect about being neurodivergent, and arguably Jewish, is that I focused more on my strengths than my conceived weaknesses. My language and literary skills became my mainstays, and I became obsessive and fixated about stories and fictional worlds. I meander when I talk and write. I wander. Lovecraft’s references to mystical and literary texts within his works, and his usage of heightened diction directly appeals to me: even to the point where many sentences and words that he uses in his narratives—which might be seen as awkward and ostentatious—are elegant to me, and when I write something of them myself I feel a sense of power and sophistication that I didn’t have as a child. I love “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,”“The Call of Cthulhu” and other stories that reference “Easter eggs” to Lovecraft’s other works, and those of others because that knowledge makes me feel like I understand an inside joke, or possess a sense of importance in a world around us that might not be so obvious. In spaces where I’d been seen as slow, or easily agitated by stimuli, or frustrated with motor-skill difficulty with basic tasks, I take my advantages where I can. In retrospect, I can only imagine the annoyance that the Great Race of Yith feels when they exchange minds with another being entirely, trying to operate their body and understand their existence through living it in “The Shadow Out of Time” or Ruthanna Emrys’ Winter Tide. Sometimes I wonder if I am a Yithian that forgot my original purpose. Nor are those the only Lovecraftian characters I can identify with. With my dyscalculia, I can appreciate the idea of something “non-Euclidean” and I possess great sympathy for Walter Gilman’s poor sensory experiences in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and wonder just how discordant and viscerally uncomfortable “The Music of Erich Zann” would feel in my gut as I hate sudden and annoying sounds now that I’m older. Yet there is one story in particular that jives with me the most, and I think it’s where Lovecraft and I actually meet.
“The Silver Key” is a progression of the depressingly real and banal, the senseless and the sad, where Randolph Carter doesn’t feel rooted anymore. All he can think about are the dreams of his childhood, as a counterpoint to cosmicism, and the place where everything made sense. For me, my childhood was alternatively a place where I was very enmeshed—even suffocated—but it was a small, golden island where everything made sense. I felt safe, and the rules were clear while my imagination could explore without limits. Over time, like Carter, I wandered, grew older, and I just felt … lost. When I was younger, I would put VHS tapes into my VCR, recordings of movies and cartoons from my youth, and watch them over and again: to try and escape the pain and uncertainty of this reality of the inevitably of loss—and to find that magic that made me so happy again. Obviously, that golden time didn’t really exist for me. A lot of my childhood was riddled with anxiety and fear of the outside world, especially at school, but in those films and animations, I felt peace. I actually felt happy. I have thought about H.P. Lovecraft, and his background. I think about how his childhood had been spent at his Grandfather Whipple’s library, and how he lost it. I considered how his mother might have smothered him, and how he knew something of what happened to his father and, eventually, her—both dying in sanitariums. I contemplate the possible origins of his reactionary anger towards a world he didn’t really understand. I know he had a nervous breakdown that took him out of school, and he was precocious and oversensitive. I know many of his most intimate friendships existed mostly through correspondence, he was very selective about the work he did, and how it was a big step for him to leave his family and live with a woman not from his background, only to fail to find employment, to maintain that relationship, and have to go home with mingled humiliation and relief. As much as I am repulsed by his abhorrent beliefs, I feel empathy with this aspect of his existence, where I almost come to terms with him.
I wonder if, at the end of his life, Lovecraft finally found his Silver Key. If he found his foundation: his peace. If he found his own sense of home. Amid the chaos of this infuriating, sad world, I wonder if I will ever rediscover mine. Maybe I will be like Randolph Carter, and the journey will continue.
Matthew Kirshenblatt is a writer that lives in Thornhill, Ontario writing about fantasy, horror, and other elements of geekery in Sequart, his Mythic Bios, or The Horror Doctor Blogs. Even now, despite or because of everything, he is still trying to find his Silver Key.
Sonnets, it seems to me, are preëminently the medium for complete ideas—in short, for a poetry as nearly intellectual as poetry can be without ceasing to be poetry. There is something inherently reflective and analytical about the very form of the sonnet. —H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 25 Feb 1924, SL1.317
The Fungi from Yuggothis a sonnet-cycle by H. P. Lovecraft which has become, post-mortem, his most-remembered and celebrated work of poetry. As David E. Schultz deftly traces in “Dim Essences: The Origins of The Fungi from Yuggoth” in The Fungi from Yuggoth: An Annotated Edition, most of the sonnets were composed in a forty-day burst from December 1929-January 1930, but their numbering and publication proved complicated during Lovecraft’s lifetime, with various sonnets appearing in different amateur journals and Weird Tales, sometimes labeled as part of the cycle and sometimes not, often with different numbering. Never published as whole during his lifetime, the full sonnet cycle was finally compiled in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House), and has been reprinted in whole and in part many times in the decades since, as well as analyzed, illustrated, set to music, and even adapted to comics.
More than that, “The Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets have inspired generations of writers and artists. One somewhat infamous project was Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, a novel of short pieces inspired by Lovecraft’s sonnets. Most of that work was lost, but of the ones that survive “The Courtyard” was adapted to comics and launched a body of related works, notably its sequels Neonomiconand Providence. Other works were in a more poetical vein, such as the anthology More Fungi from Yuggoth(2000), and Starry Wizdom’s “Night Gaunts, Too (On reading sonnet XX in H.P. Lovecraft’s *Fungi from Yuggoth* cycle)” from Walk on the Weird Side (2017).
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth” (“in the manner of H. P. Lovecraft”) are a little more obscure. How and why she was inspired to write them isn’t clear. Briley was a noted poet associated with both state-level and national-level poetry organizations, and was no doubt at least aware of August Derleth through his poetry publications: in addition to publishing fantastic poetry through its regular imprint, Arkham House had a poetry-only imprint titled Hawk & Whipporwill. She could have read Lovecraft’s Fungi in the Arkham House Collected Poems of H. P. Lovecraft (1960), or the Ballantine paperback Fungi from Yuggoth & Other Poems (1971).
Whatever the case, in 1977 two sonnets labeled “Fungi from Yuggoth” appeared in her collection From A Weaver’s Shuttle. Newspaper accounts in ’77 and ’78 show Briley won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, possibly for that volume; the August Derleth Society Newsletter (vol. 4, no. 3, 1981), which reprinted the two Fungi claimed the poems won the August Derleth Memorial Award—unfortunately, the newspapers failed to list what awards that Briley won, and there are no lists of awardees for the NFSPS that far back currently available online, so it is hard to give specifics. The last publication of Briley’s Fungi I have been able to find is in a small pamphlet titled Weird Sonnets (1981, Owl Creek Press), which is described by one review as not a sequel to Lovecraft’s Fungi, but a collection of works that “belongs to the same loose tradition.”
Which is as accurate a description of Alice Briley’s Fungi as anything.
Her sonnets consist of “I. The Elder One” and “II. Arkham Hill.” They follow the form of Lovecraft’s Fungi, being 14 lines each; they are technically correct in terms of rhyme and meter, but probably aren’t the more beautiful lines she ever produced. The last lines to “The Elder One” for example are a bit clunky:
A feathered thing that bore a human face Came swooping toward me in a wild descent, and clutch me tightly in a foul embrace. Not heaven’s herald, but from its fetid breath, An Elder One more primative [sic] than death.
“More primitive than death” is an odd image. The rhyme works, but one wonders what exactly she was thinking of, since the “Elder One” reads more like a harpy or some fallen angel than most of Lovecraft’s creations.
“Arkham Hill” is a bit more promising, in that at least it establishes a stronger narrative and an effort at an original creation with ties to Lovecraft’s setting. The witch Eliza Pruitt lived by Arkham Hill, and many sought her until:
Until that fearful twilight when she found Those mushrooms she had never seen before, At dawn, they found her writhing on the ground “Fungi from Yuggoth!” she screamed. Then said no more.
Again, not a great deal of familiarity is shown with Lovecraft’s fiction; at least, nothing to show that she had read anything beyond The Fungi from Yuggoth. Yet even that little exposure appears to have stirred her imagination, and she sought to expand on Lovecraft’s horrors in her own way. Yuggoth spores that took root in a fertile imagination and sprouted, however briefly, some fruiting bodies.
Given the decades since their last publication and Alice Briley’s demise, whether these particular Fungi will spread once again is unclear. Under current U.S. law, the work is almost certainly protected by copyright…but they are possible orphan works where determining who owns those copyrights and getting permission may be difficult and more costly than it is worth. This is an ongoing issues with many minor Mythos works, akin to some of the issues involved with fanfiction—and there is a danger that such works may be forgotten or lost with time before they can enter the public domain. Even digital archiving can be difficult without the proper permission from the copyright owners.
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth,” then, represents both the fecundity and the fragility of the Cthulhu Mythos: while Mythos works are in no immediate danger of dying out, who knows what works have already been lost, crumbling away in some forgotten fanzine?
Home via Point St. Bridge & Benefit St., & then proceeded to write the promised notes to Miss Bonner & “Aunt Enda” [sic].
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends2.985
Dear Miss Bonner:—
I called on my aunt at the hospital for the first time this afternoon, & she wished me to drop you a particular line of thanks for the many works of consideration extended—the pansies which arrived almost simultaneously with herself, the flowers arriving since then, & the bottle of eau de cologne, all of which were profoundly appreciated.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1011
In 1933, H. P. Lovecraft and his surviving aunt Annie Gamwell moved into 66 College St. Across the backyard was a boarding-house at 53-55 Waterman St., called the Arsdale—where Annie Gamwell took her daily meals, where Lovecraft would join her on occasion, especially holidays. Among the boarders at the Arsdale from 1922-1936 was Marian Frederika Bonner (1883-1952).
“Miss Bonner” was the seventh and youngest child of English immigrants; five of her siblings survived childhood. She attended Brown University for a year (1902-1903), and by 1905 was working for the Providence Public Library, where she became head of the periodicals room. She lived with her parents until her father’s death in 1898, and with her widowed mother until her death in 1913, when she began to live in boarding houses. She never married or had children, and continued to work at the Providence Public Library until her retirement in 1947.
We can only guess at the friendship of Marian Bonner and Annie Gamwell; Lovecraft’s aunt was some 17 years older, but they would have both been adult single women of limited means and literary interests, and from Lovecraft’s letters as well. The earliest references to Bonner in Lovecraft’s letters are in 1934; these do not give her name, but the inference is strong that this is she. In one she is described as providing the surnames for the neighborhood cats:
As for the name—an old lady at the boarding house started the Perkins business last February when Betsey & her 2 brothers were born. For some reason or other—perhaps because “Perkins” has a kind of quaint, old-fashioned sound—she named the black & white kitten “Betsey Perkins”, though leaving the others (slated for presentation to a family across the city) undesignated. I, however, called the little fellows “Newman Perkins” & “Ebenezer Perkins” after ancestors of my own—for I have a Perkins line. When the black kitten appeared, I went back along my Perkins ancestry & called him Samuel, after a forebear who fought in King Phillip’s War in 1676. If there are any more kittens later on, I shall probably keep going back along my Perkins line (which is traceable to 1380 in Shropshire & Warwickshire) for names—John being the next in order.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200
In another 1934 letter, Lovecraft says:
One of my aunt’s best—or likely-to-be-best—friends is a gentlewoman whom she met only last year!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 15 Jul 1934, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman &c. 383
In a letter dated 13 March 1935, Marian F. Bonner is described as “my aunt’s closest friend” (Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258-259). Not surprising when Bonner and Gamwell may have seen each other almost daily at the dining room in the Arsdale for something like three years—until March 1936, when Annie Gamwell was hospitalized to undergo a mastectomy to treat breast cancer. At which point H. P. Lovecraft, who probably knew her casually, began to correspond with Bonner on his aunt’s behalf. No doubt Lovecraft did this as well for Evelyn M. Staples, another friend of his aunt’s and Arsdale resident for whom no letters from Lovecraft survive, and “Aunt Edna”—Edna Lewis, who was Annie Gamwell’s cousin, close friend, and eventually one of the heirs to her and her nephew’s estate.
Lovecraft’s correspondence with Marian Bonner is thus brief: only 14 letters survive from 22 March 1936 until 9 December 1936. Part of the reason this correspondence continued was, no doubt, because Marian Bonner had moved out of the Arsdale in June 1936 to live in another boarding house, which would have prevented many of the little daily encounters Lovecraft may have had as he crossed the lot to retrieve a meal for his aunt. We can actually follow some of the correspondence with the diary-like letters recorded for his aunt during her hospitalization. Ultimately, their friendship continued in letters for almost the entire year.
The first letters are mostly concerned with Lovecraft’s aunt and her health; from Lovecraft’s reply of 25 March 1936, it seems that Bonner expressed her concerns for how Annie Gamwell was getting around and whether she was receiving sufficient care, to which Lovecraft responded:
Have you ever, by any chance, attempted to stop the present patient from doing anything she was determined to do?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 26 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1012
It was no doubt rare for Lovecraft to find someone who could commiserate on his aunt’s willful temperament. A chance use of the word ailurophile (cat-lover) led to one of Lovecraft’s didactic mini-essays, including carefully written out Greek, and an introduction of Miss Bonner to “Kappa Alpha Tau” (ΚΑΤ), the fraternity of neighborhood cats who often dozed in the sun on the shed in the backyard of 66 College St., which Lovecraft could observe through his window. While unable to afford to keep any of them as a pet, Lovecraft would keep track of the extended Perkins clan, and even borrow a kitten for a while in his study at times.
Kappa Alpha Tau would be an ongoing part of Lovecraft’s remaining letters to Marian Bonner, demonstrating his rare humor in full flower—and, weirdly enough, his artistic skills as he chose to hand-illustrate many of the letterheads.
Besides cats they spoke of books, of Marian F. Bonner’s part in a play, local words, old Providence street names, the articles of local Providence journalist Bertrand K. Hart, bits and pieces of their daily lives (including R. H. Barlow’s 1936 visit); he lent her some books (and noted the irony, given that she was a librarian) and a copy of Weird Tales that contained his story “The Outsider” (either the Apr 1926 original printing or the Jun-Jul 1931 reprint), and she even asked questions about weird fiction, which Lovecraft dutifully answered:
Regarding the difference betwixt “myster” & “fantastic” fiction, as these terms are commonly used—I believe that by the former only detective tales & their close congeners are usually meant. Some striking event or situation of unknown cause, but with a natural explanation deductively reached, is the usual so-called “mystery” pattern. On the other hand fantastic fiction involves the impossible & incredible, admitting supernatural causation of every sort. It is, in its purest form, simply the projection or crystallisation of a certain type of human mood. Its truth is not to objective evnets, but only to human emotions. In this genre the greatest masters—in addition to Poe—are Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Montague Rhodes James, Walter de la Mare, William Hope Hodgson, & to some extent the present incumbent of Lord Minto’s erstwhile vice-regal seat at Ottawa [John Buchan]. Many of the finest specimens, though, are the work of writers who do not specialise in this field—for example, “The Turn of the Screw” by Henry James, & “The King in Yellow” by the late popular hack Robert W. Chambers.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 9 Apr 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1021
Marian Bonner’s move to a boarding house at 156 Meeting St. in June 1936 occasioned one of Lovecraft’s bright spots of 1936: the street had formerly been “Gaol-Lane,” and he addressed the envelope as such—and someone at the Providence post office either knew their history or deciphered his meaning, for they delivered it to the correct address.
There is a break in the letters from mid-June to mid-November 1936; no doubt these were lost sometime in the intervening decades, and probably Bonner continued to visit 66 College St. to speak to Annie Gamwell and Lovecraft, but the correspondence does not seem to have ended, as it continues on without apology. Most of the last few letters deal almost exclusively with Kappa Alpha Tau, but it seems that Lovecraft may have made Marian Bonner something of a convert to supernatural fiction:
As orally expressed before, we rejoice that you have located “The Witch-Cult in Western Europe” & have thereby become familiar with Sabbats, Estbats, Covens, & all the other attributes of the festering horror which brroded over mediaeval & renaissance Europe & perhaps over colonial Salem. And we apologise that our nominated guide Sir Walter failed to mention Sabbats at all—as he really should have done, since the term was well-known from constant repetition at witch-trials long before the actuality of any subterraneous cult was suspected.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 9 Dec 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1043
Of the latter part of their friendship, little is written. Lovecraft’s 1937 diary lists “Miss Bonner call—discuss—lighted tree” (CE 5.241) on 1 January 1937, so apparently she came to visit Annie Gamwell & her nephew, and may have stayed to see the candles lit on the small tree they had for the holiday season.
After his death, Marian F. Bonner was approached to contribute to a memorial volume; the effect was “Miscellaneous Impressions of H.P.L.” in Rhode Island on Lovecraft (1945), where her name is mispelled as “Marian F. Barner.” Her brief account, only two pages, are accurate according to the letters that survive—and, more importantly, give us some of her understanding of things:
Some of his letters to me were in pen and ink, and bore a leter head of cat’s face. […] His handwriting was not easy to read, as he used, among other things, the old fashioned long “s.” Realizing his weakness, he would often compare his manuscripts very carefully with the type. […] It seems there is a postal law enabling one to write on most of the address side of a picture postcard. Mr. Lovecraft took a fiendish delight in covering every bit of a postal that he could, with the message. he was the despair of the postal authorities. hose postals were crazy-looking things! […]
I now how much store Mrs. Gamwell set by him, and how much she missed him after his death.
—Marian F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H.P.L.”, Ave Atque Vale 433
For the biographical information on Marion F. Bonner I am indebted to Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., whose essay “Lovecraft Was Our Neighbor: The People of The Arsdale” is included in Lovecraftian People and Places(2022, Hippocampus Press).
The more these synthetic daemons are mutually writtne up by different authors, the better they become as general background-material! I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, ES 1.353
What has become known as the Cthulhu Mythos began as a kind of literary game. Writers at Weird Tales, inspired by each other’s artificial horrors, began to borrow or insert references to each other’s creations in their stories. The practice can be traced back earlier—Robert W. Chambers famously borrowed a few odd names from Ambrose Bierce for his stories in The King in Yellow—but H. P. Lovecraft and his friends took the game to another level.
About the Necronomicon—I like to have other authors in the gang allude to it, for it helps work up a background of evil verisimilitude.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 14 Aug 1931, LJS 35
The purpose of the sharing, of the Necronomicon appearing in both Lovecraft’s “The Hound” (1922) and Frank Belknap Long’s “The Were-Snake” (1925) was verisimilitude. The use of the same names by different authors reinforced the idea of a reality and consistency between the stories, that these writers were drawing from a shared background of genuine mythology…and it worked. Readers wanted to know more, they wrote to H. P. Lovecraft and other writers asking about where they could find out more about Cthulhu and Tsathoggua, and where they could get copies of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten.
It was the beginning of a shared universe and viral marketing, though neither term had been invented yet. Because the instantiation of the idea preceded its formal definition or codification, there have been a few quirks and hiccups. There was no concept of “canon” in the early Mythos stories: Lovecraft placed no restrictions on the use of his creations by other authors, and while there are a few references in his letters to attempting to keep things consistent between authors, he himself did not have or attempt to exercise any authority over the creativity of others. Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Donald Wandrei, and Henry Kuttner continued to write their own stories, in their own styles. The Mythos was a connective tissue, and it was left to fans to try and codify, extrapolate, and gloss the bits of lore.
August Derleth was both an original author of the Mythos, contemporary and equal with Lovecraft and the others, and the first great codifier and pasticheur. Derleth had the great advantage that, as co-founder of Arkham House, he entered into agreements with Lovecraft’s surviving aunt Annie Gamwell and literary executor R. H. Barlow to publish Lovecraft’s fiction, and often acted to promulgate, define, and defend Lovecraft’s Mythos.
In his desire to see Lovecraft’s legacy continue in print, Derleth succeeded. However, in the process he had stifled creative use of the Mythos. His interpretations (or misinterpretations, as Richard L. Tierney would argue in “The Derleth Mythos”) had constrained the definition of both what the Mythos was and could be; his pastiches like The Lurker at the Threshold had devolved into being about the Mythos rather than using the Mythos as a common background with which to tell stories, and he had squashed the efforts of would-be Mythos writers like C. Hall Thompson. While the Mythos field was not stagnant—Derleth encouraged the work of writers like Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, and Colin Wilson—it was largely constrained by Derleth’s own tastes and desire to maintain control on Lovecraft’s legacy.
With the death of August Derleth and the relaxation of this central authority, the Mythos has blossomed. Would-be codifiers and glossators have had to face up to the impossibility of applying a single “canon” to the Mythos. There are too many stories, too many different voices, any number of different interpretations or ideas, often contradicting one another…which is not a bad thing. Lovecraft’s own mythology is often inconsistent, as real-world mythology is. Derleth succeeded in keeping the Mythos alive in the decades after Lovecraft’s death; now it is up to everyone else to reinterpret and reinvent the Mythos, to keep it fresh and relevant for new generations to enjoy and play with.
My own rule is that no weird story can truly produce terror unless it is devised with all the care & verisimilitude of an actual hoax. […] My own attitude in writing is always that of the hoaxweaver.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, DS 244
For all of its success, the Cthulhu Mythos as it exists today is not without its flaws. While Lovecraft encouraged other writers to use his creations and borrowed those of his friends, copyright remains a dominant influence on any shared literary enterprise. While pretty much everything Lovecraft wrote is in the public domain in the United States, the same is not true for Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, Fritz Leiber, and other contemporary authors—not to mention authors of later generations such as Ramsey Campbell, Brian Lumley, W. H. Pugmire, and Caitlín R. Kiernan. While many of these later authors are generous in allowing others to utilize their contributions to the Mythos in their own stories, issues of copyright and permissions add a layer of complexity that can serve as a potential energy barrier to new Mythos fiction.
Or, to put it another way: it’s easier to use the Mythos material you know is in the public domain and won’t be sued over. A good bit of the attraction of the Mythos is that unlike the shared universes of Marvel and DC, they are largely free to use. This is why people continue to utilize Cthulhu and the Necronomicon, and to revisit the plot and characters of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” more often than they do Tsathoggua and the Book of Eibon, or Gol-goroth and Unaussprechlichen Kulten. The Mythos was not conceived as a shared universe from the first, so these legal tripwires remain and sometimes hamper ideas.
So imagine a Cthulhu Mythos for the 21st century. A collective literary endeavor, eminently flexible just conceived in such a way as to maximize both participation and sharing, to avoid legal hassles and deliberately avoid stagnation by encouraging a multiplicity of canons—to embrace change and growth, rather than be locked in to a single limited conception dominated by a few great authors.
That is essentially what the SCP Wiki is and aims to be.
The literary roots go all the way back to the pulps: when H. P. Lovecraft had the federal government move in to Secure Innsmouth, Contain its populace, and Protect the wider world from the awful truth of what actually happened there, he was at the forefront of a mixture of fiction and popular conspiracy theory where secret agencies work to maintain normalcy and contain the anomalous. Steps along the way include the warehouse where the Ark of the Covenant was stored at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Friday the 13th: The Series (1987-1990), Delta Green, GURPS Warehouse 23 (1999), the comic book The Men in Black (1990) and its 1997 film adaptation, The X-Files (1993-2002), Millennium (1996), and even internet-based fanfiction like “The Fluff At The Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber.
In 2007, a post on 4chan pitched the basic idea in the form of SCP-173. A secret agency (the SCP Foundation) works to contain the anomalous, from artifacts to creatures to ideas and concepts. The idea gained steam from there: a wiki was established, formats agreed upon, and everything published was done so under a Creative Commons license. The early SCP wiki was very different from how the SCP wiki stands today—many of the popular concepts like Sarkism and the Church of the Broken God took time to develop, and are still being developed. New concepts like the Ethics Committee and thaumiel class came into existence, and the existence and treatment of “D-Class” have been argued and reimagined—my personal favorite embellishment for the latter being SCP-1851-EX, which shows how well the SCP format can be used to address complex and emotionally charged subjects like historical racism.
The SCP wiki has also spread out to include video games, Japanese doujinshi, tchotchkes and cosplay, even novels like There Is No Antimemetics Division (2021) by qntm—and long-time readers of the wiki may well wonder if the project hasn’t jumped the shark. There are joke SCPs, badly written tales, erasures and lacunae, political and ideological squabbles that have found their way into the pages. Not every SCP is equally creative or equally well-written; some represent weeks of writing and artwork, others read like they were whipped off during a lunch break; some involve baroque and abstruse concepts normally the domain of doctors of philosophy and religion, and some are little more than random artifacts fit for a Dungeons & Dragons or Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game campaign. Many are effectively little more than short fiction more suited for a Creepypasta. Not only is there no single “canon,” but many of the SCPs are written in such a way that they directly contradict one another (as with the various “proposals” for SCP-001). Even what you thought you knew might be upended by some new SCP, or an older entry being removed.
In a wiki with few constants, one consistent element is the influence of H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. This is very rarely an effort to actually squeeze the Mythos into the shared universe of the SCP Foundation, though you occasionally see references to Miskatonic University (e.g. SCP-6027). More often it is a metafictional take on the ideas and tropes of the Mythos, often as presented not in Lovecraft’s original stories but through the pop-culture milieu of Derlethian pastiche and the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. SCP-2662 and SCP-3883 are cases in point, as somewhat tongue-in-cheek takes on sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, and the very idea of a “cognitohazard” owes something to Sanity Points as a mechanic; but there are more serious takes. The King in Yellow was definitely an inspiration for The Hanged King’s Tragedy (SCP-701); Lovecraft’s life served as an inspiration for SCP-4315.
One of the more interesting and clever entries that take inspiration from Lovecraft’s Mythos is SCP-5389, written in 2021 by user Agisuru. Like many good SCPs, 5389 doesn’t skimp on the containment procedures; the dry prelude to the actual description provides the reader with an idea of the efforts made to contain the anomalous issue, and sometimes a foreshadowing of the actual threat (if any) posed. The description itself is relatively straightforward, almost dry: long-time SCP wiki readers probably will gloss over another anomalous animal. The addendum and interview material is where the real narrative develops, and as the reader opens one section after another the rabbit hole gets deeper and deeper—a good mystery is often the heart of a good SCP as well as a good Mythos story.
The twist at the end is almost inevitable, but the real fun in the entry is in the names of the protocols and agents involved: Ib-e, Orne, Olmstead, Zadok Allen, Marsh—names borrowed from “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” SCP-5389 is not, to be clear, a kind of contemporary re-telling of either of those stories, but they are Easter eggs for Lovecraft aficionados…and perhaps an invitation. This isn’t exactly another new take on an old story in the vein of “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton and “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, it’s a remix of some of the fundamental Lovecraftian ideas in a new form and format.
The Cthulhu Mythos is in its own way as infectious a meme as anything fought by the antimemetics division, and inextricable from the noosphere and oneiric collective of humanity. It may never die, just as Arthurian legend and Greek and Roman myths have continued to influence us for centuries and millennia. We are, as Terry Pratchett put it in The Science of Discworld II: The Globe, “Pans narrans”—storytelling apes. We like a good story, and SCP-5389 is a part of one: the story of the Cthulhu Mythos and how it continues to develop, to evolve…and we may look forward to how it continues to do so for a long time to come.
If you liked SCP-5389, Agisuru has posted two other SCPs with a similar dynamic as of this writing: SCP-6918 and SCP-6919.
To your boundless amazement I shall now take typewriter in hand and write you a letter. Still further to shock you, I am enclosing the story you so kindly inquired about, and also—did I or didn’t I send you WEREWOMAN? This burning question has haunted me all day, ever since I delved industriously into the stack of boxes and bales which I laughingly term my files and produced every story I ever wrote with the exception of the famous WW. I am probably being even more hen-brained than usual, but will enclos the carbon of WW which I have somewhere around, tho lurking in the back of my subconscious is a suspicion that I have already sent you the original. If so, pay no attention. Surely you have sufficient aplomb to withstand a sudden deluge of werewomen.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft and R. H. Barlow, 20 Aug 1935, LCM 56
In the summer of 1935, H. P. Lovecraft was staying with R. H. Barlow and his family in DeLand, Florida. At Barlow’s urging, Lovecraft and C. L. Moore had begun their correspondence (Her Letters To Lovecraft: Catherine Lucille Moore), with Lovecraft full of praise for stories like “Shambleau” (1933) and “Black God’s Kiss” (1934). Barlow, as was typical, asked her for manuscripts and drawings…and in 1934 received an unusual reply:
I’m having rather a set-back in my attempts to illustrate my own stories. The one Mr. Wright liked so well was a drawing for the story, which, as you know, he returned. WERE-WOMAN. The drawing was pretty good, but the story, I must admit, rather terrible. It’s heartening to know that the more established writers get things back too, but I can’t pretend that the fault was anybody’s but my own in this case, and I really expected it back when I sent it. It was a grand idea, I still think, but somehow it just wouldn’t jell. Mr. Wright has inquired about it several times and has asked me to re-write it, but my mind is a perfect vacuum whenever I try.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 1 Jun 1934, MSS. John Hay Library
It isn’t clear when exactly Moore wrote “Werewoman” (sometimes spelled “Were-Woman”)—in later interviews, she claimed it was her second Northwest Smith story after “Shambleau,” and the first to be rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, but her memory issues later in life make such claims somewhat questionable; the 1934 date of this letter suggests “Werewoman” may have been written and submitted somewhat later. At some point, Moore sent the “Werewoman” typescript to Barlow, who presumably showed it to Lovecraft during his visit…along with another rejected story:
Well, have just received my first flat rejection from Wright. A harmless little tale about a sorcerer king of antediluvian time, his mysterious witch-queen and a time-traveler with a startling resemblance to a certain Mr. Smith whom I may have mentioned once or twice before, tho no names were named in the story. Ah well, life is full of disappointments. —C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, 31 May 1935, MSS. John Hay Library
This story appears to be lost, but Moore apparently also sent this story to Barlow, who forwarded it to Lovecraft, who had finally taken his leave of Florida. We know this because of Lovecraft’s answering letter:
Well—anyhow, I’ve read the enclosed story, & think it distinctly good in places—though the rather conventional dialogue & general layout put it below “The Were Woman”. I presume the interepid [sic] & leather-clad time-traveller is none other than our old friend Northwest Smith. The other-wordly suggestion & description of vague, non-human forms are excellently managed—despite a slight sense of disappointment in the climax. It beats most recent Mooreiana, though scarcely attaining the “Shambleau”-”Black Thirst”-”Were-Woman” level. Most distinctly does it bear the impress of pulp influence. However—both stories are good, & I can unhesitatingly praise them in writing the author. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 Aug 1935, OFF 286
In another letter, we find out where and when Lovecraft must have read “Werewoman”: shortly after leaving the Barlows, in St. Augustine:
Aunt just forwarded “Werewoman”, for which abundant thanks. Glad you’re getting the decent text before the thing is pulpised. I recall reading it on a bench in San Agustin—in the Plaza de la Constitutción. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 2 Jan 1936, OFF 313
R. H. Barlow had convinced C. L. Moore to allow him to publish “Werewoman,” which he eventually did in his amateur journal Leaves #2 (Winter 1938). He also separately printed and bound a small edition, one copy of which is listed in The Book Sail 16th Anniversary Catalogue:
493. MOORE, C[athereine] L[ucille]. Werewoman. 1934. Privately prepared, typewritten ribbon copy on the rectors of [iii] 29 [ii] pages, 8 ½” x 11″. Inscribed by Moore and bound in half morocco and heavy paper-covered boards, with an additional inscription on an adhesive label affixed to the front fly. A notation appears on the final leaf, indicating that this is one of three copies.
The literary afterlife of “Werewoman” after its initial printing is a messy affair; pulp scholar Sam Moskowitz had noted that the story was in the public domain and republished it without seeking Moore’s permission, which rather soured Moore on Moskowitz (and in turn, Moskowitz on Moore) in a dispute that went on for decades, with Moskowitz getting the final word after Moore’s death. Dave Goudsward tracks the accusations and animosity in his article “A Tale of Two Stories” in Pulp Adventures #36 (2020), which also reprints “Werewoman.”
Lovecraft never wrote anything more about the story; he might have written about it to Moore and his letter lost, but as the story had not seen print during his lifetime he could scarcely write about it to anyone else. Despite Moore’s own low opinion of the tale, he ranked it among her better ones…and while “Werewoman” might not be the best of the Northwest Smith tales, it is undoubtedly among the weirdest.
C. L. Moore never spoke of the inspiration for this story; though the term “were-woman” or “werewoman” had cropped up rarely in Weird Tales before then, notably in Robert E. Howard’s “Worms of the Earth” (WT Nov 1932), and the werewoman inviting Northwest Smith as her mate recalls the interaction Bêlit and Conan in “The Queen of the Black Coast” (WT May 1934). It eschews any direct connection to the other Northwest Smith stories, and is hard to place in any kind of chronology. Ironically, that probably made it easier when Roy Thomas adapted the story for Conan the Barbarian in Savage Sword of Conan #221 (1994).
While space opera had few absolute conventions in the early 1930s, “Werewoman” defies most of them: on an unknown planet, Northwest Smith encounters werewolves and ancient alien sorcery. It wouldn’t be the first or last time that Moore mixed superscience with the supernatural, but there is absolutely no hesitancy or winking at the audience. The division between fantasy and science fiction as distinct sub-genres was already beginning to be established, but weird tales could and did mix and mingle both.
Lovecraft no doubt loved the rich description, the absolute weirdness of the conception and execution of the story. If a reader can suspend their disbelief about the incongruence of settings, there is much to enjoy in the story. Once again, outer space outlaw Northwest Smith has stumbled into an ancient mystery, one that involves a beautiful woman and a danger to body and soul alike. In terms of tone, the presentation of Smith as an “adventurer,” the story is closer to the kind of sword & sorcery tales of Robert E. Howard or Fritz Leiber, Jr. than the space operas of E. E. “Doc” Smith or Edmond Hamilton.
Moore’s werewoman is different than that of most of the other werewolves Lovecraft had encountered written by women. She is not solitary, but the leader of a pack; more than a killer, she shows admiration and acceptance for Northwest Smith. Like White Fell in The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman, she seems to embrace her nature, but rather than defy gender roles she seems to embrace and embody her position as the leader of the pack. No wailing or gnashing of teeth over her fate, no men fighting over her: she likes being a wolf, and chooses whom to love. The result is a sympathetic portrayal of a strong woman that goes for what she wants—not unlike Moore’s heroine Jirel of Joiry.
“Werewoman” has been reprinted many times over the decades, but the confusion about its copyright status appears to have largely prevented the text from being widely available online. The text in Pulp Adventures #36 is a true and accurate copy of the original 1938 printing from Leaves. Being a mimeographed publication, Leaves does not scan well, but anyone that wants to strain their eyes can attempt to make their way through this scan. A full reprint of Leaves and Barlow’s other amateur journal The Dragon-Fly was published by S. T. Joshi and can be found here.
It is really very hard to work with a superstition as well-known & conventionalised as those of the vampire & werewolf. Some day I may idly try my hand, but so far I have found original synthetic horrors much more tractable. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, DS 262
By the 1930s, werewolf stories were already an established genre. While many of the tropes that we associate with pop culture lycanthropy today were not yet standard—silver bullets, the infectious bite, the influence of the moon on the transformation, the werewolf as a sympathetic character or power fantasy—they already existed, both in myth and legend and in dozens of stories and novels, from The Were-Wolf (1896) by Clemence Housman and The Thing In the Woods (1924) by Harper Williams to any number of stories in Weird Tales from leading authors like Seabury Quinn, H. Warner Munn, and Greye La Spina. Pulp writers worked many variations of the werewolf tale, most of which today are rather old-fashioned…and even when first published, as Lovecraft noted, sometimes the premise and rules were just a little too familiar. What fear of the unknown can there be, when dealing with the known quantity of a werewolf?
Yet for all that, werewolves were a perennial favorite, for both weird fiction fans and authors. There were endless variations on the theme to explore, and many of the tropes had not quite been codified yet, which added to the possibilities.
Greye La Spina knew a thing or two about werewolves. Though they never corresponded, La Spina was one of Lovecraft’s foremost women contemporaries at Weird Tales during the 1920s and 30s, and in terms of sheer published output she was much more successful than the Old Gent from Providence, publishing over a hundred short stories, novelettes, and serials in a dozen pulps. She had dealt with werewolves previously in “Wolf of the Steppes” (The Thrill Book, Mar 1919) and Invaders from the Dark (Weird Tales, Apr-May-Jun 1925), and in 1932 she returned to the theme again with a story titled “The Devil’s Pool” (Weird Tales June 1932).
The story earned the cover illustration for the issue, but there was little praise for it—especially from Lovecraft:
The La Spina novelette somehow drags along very dully—with triteness & triviality sapping at what might be suspensefully horrible.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 May 1932, DS 367
Klarkash-Ton appears to advantage, but the La Spina thing left me cold even though I recognised a fine chance for horrific atmosphere in the wanderings of the hero around the forbidden wing of the accursed farmhouse.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 May 1932, ES 2.477
In fairness to La Spina, the “triteness & triviality” that Lovecraft noticed is not the result of any sort of formula plot. There are some vivid and effective images in the story, which is no doubt part of what earned it that cover illustration. The story is notably reminiscent of what would become Manly Wade Wellman’s most notable type of weird tale, with supernatural horror overtaking relatively simple but forthright people in a largely secluded rural setting, and “The Devil’s Pool” would not be out of place in an anthology alongside some of his southern mountain stories.
Nor was La Spina simply repeating the same werewolf lore that had characterized “Wolf of the Steppes” and Invaders from the Dark, but followed a different vein of lore:
The writer of Perigord tells how at the beginning of the nineteenth century it was believed in this district that at each full moon certain lads, particularly the sons of priests, are compelled to become werewolves. They go forth at night when the impulse is upon them, strip off their clothes and plunge naked into a certain pool. As they emerge they find a number of wolf-pelts, furnished by the demon, which they don and thus scour the countryside. Before dawn they return to the same pool, cast off their skins, and plung into the water again, whence emrging in human form they make their way home. […] Exorcism and, above all, the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar will disperse all glamour and objectively restore to human shape those upon whom an evil spell of fascination and metamorphosis has been cast.
—Montague Summers, The Werewolf (1933)
While Summers’ book on werewolves came out after La Spina’s story was published, she obviously drew on similar legends from some book of folklore—and improved on them with a few of her own twists, which had they been worked out a little more carefully would have made for a better story. As it stands, there’s some fairness to Lovecraft’s criticism: the story is drawn out and slow, the characterization is lacking, the inability of the characters to explain anything utterly frustrating, the action lacks punch, and the story is ultimately on the weaker end of Christian horror, with the evil vanquished by a handful of holy wafers.
Other aspects of the story have not aged well. One of the supporting characters is Harry Epstein, “a young Jewish fellow”—and while Harry’s religion has absolutely nothing to do with the story, La Spina makes his Jewishness the central and nearly constant aspect of his character. While the characterization is not explicitly a negative stereotype, it is constant and depicted in a manner reminiscent of many broad ethnic depictions. Phrases like “The dark, Hebraic face scowled.” only work if both the writer and audience have an idea in their head as to what a Jew looks like as distinct from anyone else. It’s good to get a little diversity into what is otherwise a cast of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, but that’s very much a pulp formulation, with zero subtlety or purpose than to add a bit of color.
The fact that the 14-year-old Janie wants to marry Harry someday is a separate issue.
Janie Baumann is integrally tied with how the story addresses disability and ableness, which is one of the major themes. For most of the story, young Janie cannot walk and is confined to her bed, out of sight of the narrative—yet it is ultimately her condition, and the stresses placed on her aged grandfather as caregiver, which is the driving factor for the supernatural events of the story, and she is vital in their eventual resolution. In addition to physical mobility issues, she is also characterized with suggestions of mental disability: “Janie isn’t stupid, but she isn’t very…what I’d call bright.” Between the physical disability issues and suggestions of mental disability, Janie is presented as a pathetic figure, a subject of empathy for all of the adults around her—except for the villainous Lem Schwartz, who seeks to take advantage of the sympathy the other adults have for Janie.
Representations of disability in weird fiction during the early 20th century were often not great, as examined in A Disability Scholar Looks At Lovecraft by Farah Rose Smith; characters with disabilities were often characterized as either pathetic or monstrous. In “The Devil’s Pool,” there’s a bit of both. Janie is, for most of the story, characterized as “a cripple”—though this physical disability is overcome by the end, and the mental disability is never as evident or depicted in the manner as initially described. The one bright spot for Janie in the story is that she never allows her disability to define her…it is the motivations and outlooks of other people as they act based on their ideas of her disability that lead to the events of “The Devil’s Pool.”
The monstrous depiction of disability is something that happens to the main character, who finds himself faced with his own difficulties walking. If La Spina had allowed a bit more room for introspection, this could have been an interesting as a depiction of how an individual comes to terms with such a sudden change in their ableness—but at this point in the story, the plot was finally getting to the “good” parts, and speeding along toward the climax. So although the setup would seem to call for the protagonist to gain some insight and deepened understanding for what Janie has been going through, and that she is not necessarily as helpless and needy as supposed, not as much is made of the disability as a theme as it could have been.
By the end of the story, all of the disabilities are miraculously resolved; no doubt Lovecraft would have rolled his eyes at the rather prosaic happy ending.
Mrs. La Spina is distinctly mediocre—full of clichés and cheap romantic devices. Two or three of her older stories weren’t bad, but her latest attempt was pitifully weak.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 22 Nov 1934, LRBO 197
References to Greye La Spina are few in Lovecraft’s letters; no doubt he read her stories as they appeared in Weird Tales, but like the work of Seabury Quinn, he rarely felt the need to comment, and when he did it was usually to make some remark lamenting her conventionality. He was right that La Spina gave the readers what they wanted—and that was why, no doubt, she was commercially more successful at it than Lovecraft. Unfortunately, that’s also why she has largely fallen into obscurity: “The Devil’s Pool” isn’t exactly a forgotten classic of the werewolf genre; it isn’t even her best werewolf story, and easily forgotten among the dozens of other lycanthrope stories in Weird Tales and other pulps.