A Jewish Poet Looks at Lovecraft by Norman Finkelstein
H. P. Lovecraft always seems to have been part of my literary imagination, but I must have begun reading him somewhere between the ages of twelve and fourteen. I still have my first paperback editions: the Lancer Books with exceptionally cheesy covers (“H. P. Lovecraft summons you to The Colour Out of Space…), the Beagle Horror Collection volumes (including stories by later Mythos writers), and the Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy series, with their charming but perhaps overly whimsical covers by Gervasio Gallardo. I read Lovecraft devotedly for a few years, while also reading a number of other fantasy and science fiction authors. Then I stopped, and began reading “serious” literature—Pound and Eliot, Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Pynchon and Roth. My interest in Lovecraft lay dormant for a long time, but looking back over a period of some fifty years, I realize that his stories provided me with my first, and still one of my most intense, experiences of what I now understand to be theuncanny[das Unheimlich].
I refer specifically to the concept as delineated by Freud in his phantasmagoric essay “The Uncanny,” a text which, as some commentators have pointed out, is itself an instance of what it seeks to explain. In regard to Lovecraft, I would stress three qualities of Freud’s uncanny that I believe I recognized even when I read him at an early age: (1) “intellectual uncertainty”; (2) a sense of that which “ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet comes to light”; and (3) the pervasive influence of “silence, darkness and solitude.” Mark Fisher, who refines and extrapolates from Freud’s Unheimlich in his book The Weird and the Eerie, observes that Lovecraft is the preeminent author of weird fiction because his:
stories are obsessively fixated on the question of the outside: an outside that breaks through in encounters with anomalous entities from the deep past, in altered states of consciousness, in bizarre twists in the structure of time. (16)
Furthermore, “it is not horror but fascination—albeit a fascination usually mixed with a certain trepidation—that is integral to Lovecraft’s rendition of the weird” (17). The fascination with the weird which protagonists in Lovecraft’s fiction experience is mirrored by that of the reader of his work: in “The Dunwich Horror,” for instance, Armitage and his colleagues cannot take their eyes off the body of the dead Wilbur Whateley, and likewise, we cannot stop reading their increasingly compelling story. That was certainly the case for me, though my fascination with Lovecraft seemed relatively short-lived. But that proved not to be the case.
In my late twenties and early thirties, having finished a dissertation on modern poetry and begun my teaching career at Xavier University, I experienced a desire to return to my Jewish roots. Raised in a somewhat observant but mainly secular and assimilated Jewish family in New York City, I had drifted away from Jewishness. Literature had become my religion, and writing poetry (and criticism) was the practice of my faith. My “return” to Judaism was not primarily religious—it was literary. As I read intensely in modern Jewish literature, certain authors stirred up a vaguely familiar sense. These authors, such as Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and I. B. Singer, brought hidden things to light for me. Hardly Lovecraftian, they nevertheless summoned a distinct sense of an outside, twisting my personal experience of time in strange but fascinating ways, and above all, challenging a sense of stable identity. In the modern world, Jews are themselves insiders and outsiders; their sense of history is simultaneously continuous and full of traumatic ruptures. For me, Jewishness began to entail a feeling of the uncanny; Jewishness, as I experienced it, was both familiar and unfamiliar, heimlich and unheimlich, ancient and contemporary.
Add to this my discovery of Kabbalah through the work of Gershom Scholem, and Jewish history and culture became much more mysterious than I had been previously taught. Reading Scholem and other scholars of Kabbalah, I discovered that the rituals and customs I had taken for granted while growing up suddenly became portals through which I could enter other times and places. I began to see a deeper Jewish vision of cosmology, while at the same time learning that Judaism was as suffused with myth as any other faith. The question of belief, always problematic for me, was further cast in doubt. In his magisterial The Uncanny, Nicholas Royle notes that the concept, as delineated by Freud:
demands or presupposes a new way of thinking about religion….The experience of the uncanny, as [Freud] seeks to theorize it, is not available or appropriate to, say, a Jewish or Christian ‘believer.’ (20)
This accounts in part for the poems I began writing, poems that are also (in proper Jewish fashion) darkly ambivalent commentaries on the texts that proved so fascinating to me. Was I inside or outside of these texts? They blurred my sense of time and self, even as I wrote about them. These poems found their way into my first collection, Restless Messengers. However comfortable, however pleased I was with my “return,” it had also proved to be a little…weird.
Fast forward once again, this time another twenty or twenty-five years. I published a number of books of poetry and of literary criticism. I have written about Jewish literature, and about various other religions and belief systems as they are manifested in modern poetry. I spent years studying psychoanalysis at the Cincinnati Psychoanalytic Institute. Increasingly interested in gnosticism and hermeticism, I began teaching works that engage the sacred and the transgressive, and, while still writing recognizably Jewish poetry, I incorporated elements of the magical and fantastic in my work as well. In an inevitable return of the repressed, my interest in Lovecraft came back to life, as I observed academic criticism engaging popular genres and authors with greater seriousness.
Reading Lovecraft with the same enthusiasm as my fourteen-year-old self, but now equipped with an array of critical tools, I have to acknowledge and come to terms with the ideologically unsavory aspects of his work, his neurotic prejudices and tragic life history. Needless to say, his racism and antisemitism are painfully troubling to me, though in some respects, no more or less troubling than the cases of Pound, Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Jack Spicer, to name the modern poets about whom I’ve written, and who have unquestionably shaped my own poetry.
In my reading experience, Lovecraft’s case is closest to that of Pound, but the sheer quantity of Lovecraft’s hateful rhetoric exceeds even that of Pound’s correspondence and notorious radio broadcasts. Thus the question now arises, as it has for many writers in the past: what does it mean to admire and to acknowledge the influence of an author who detests and vituperates the beliefs, behaviors, and customs that have, to a great extent, made you who you are? Who excoriates your “race” and denigrates its history and culture? Who might well find you personally unlikeable if not downright loathsome? And—here is the heart of the problem—who expresses his feelings in language that is often so hyperbolic, and yet so closely intertwined with his most remarkable literary achievements, that it calls upon you to engage with it. We return to that moment when we stare down at the body of Wilbur Whateley, horrified but inescapably fascinated by something repellent and wrong. But in this case, we are looking not at a half-human monster, but at a human, all too human body of morally reprehensible prejudices. Both are equally malevolent.
“I am an anti-Semitic by nature,” writes Lovecraft in 1915; he continues:
The Jew is an adverse influence, since he insidiously degrades or Orientalizes our robust Aryan civilization. The intellect of the race is indisputably great, but its nature is not such that it may be safely employed in forming Western political & social ideas. Oppressive as it seems, the Jew must be muzzled.
Here, Lovecraft establishes the pattern for over twenty years of epistolary invective, though as has been observed by many readers, his racism and antisemitism grow increasingly vicious (and his prose grows more extravagant) after his sojourn in New York City and his firsthand experiences with the teeming streets of Manhattan and Brooklyn. In many respects, Lovecraft’s writing on race and ethnicity is an instance of the pseudo-biological and anthropological discourse that was prevalent from the mid-nineteenth through the mid-twentieth centuries in both the U.S. and Europe, culminating in Nazism. He observes that:
It is now definitely known that many allegedly Semitic types of today are not in reality Semitic or even white at all, but derived from Asiatic Tatar-Mongoloids who were Judaised by missionaries before their entrance into Central Europe from the Thibetan plateaux in the 8th or 9th century A.D. Of these are the queer-eyed, yellow-red, thick-lipped flat-nosed types seen in Providence’s North End and in many parts of New York.
Like other American antisemites (again, I think of Pound in his correspondence), he sometimes affects a fake Yiddish accent, writing of Jewish merchants selling gentiles “ah nize pair uff $5.00 pents for $10.00” (A Means to Freedom 1.134). He maintains the longstanding belief, as prevalent today as it was then, that Jews control the media through their great wealth:
I didn’t say that Jews own all the papers, but merely that they control their policies through economic channels. The one great lever, of course, is advertising.
This power, in turn, leads to an undue Jewish influence on the nation’s literary culture:
But the Jews manage to get money and influence without losing a particle of their hard realism and unctuously offensive rattiness. They push brazenly ahead—in the intellectual and aesthetic as well as the practical field. Right now their control of the publishing field is alarming—houses like Knopf, Boni, Liveright, Greenberg, Viking, etc. etc. serving to give a distinctly Semitic angle to the whole matter of national manuscript-choice, and thus indirectly to national current literature and criticism.
And though he eventually came to disagree with Hitler and the Nazis in regard to antisemitic policy, and died before the Final Solution, he once unknowingly foreshadows the Holocaust. Writing of “the stinking Manhattan pest zone” full of “squint-eyed, verminous kikes,” he declares:
I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears… & the same goes for the dago slums!)
The complex historical and psychological reasons behind racial and ethnic prejudice vary for every individual; in Lovecraft’s case, his racism and antisemitism appear to arise from a combination of a deeply-seated sense of the superiority of the (increasingly threatened) New England “aristocracy” from which he believed he had arisen, which was exacerbated by personal circumstances, especially, as I noted previously, his precarious circumstances while living in New York. Simple ignorance of the ways of other cultures is always a contributing factor as well, and where there is ignorance there is usually fear. Lovecraft himself admits in his letters that he has no knowledge of Jewish customs or of the Talmud (Letters to F. Lee Baldwin et al. 117); instead, what he observes in New York are:
assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress.
“Picturesque” Jews (Lovecraft is almost certainly describing Hasidim) versus “strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress”: this is the extent of Lovecraft’s vision of modern Jewish American life, except when he is raving about “squint-eyed, verminous kikes.” Sonia Greene, the Russian Jewish immigrant to whom he was briefly married during his New York sojourn, is described as “so volatile a Slav” when she first visits him in Providence; he refers to her as “Mrs. Greenevsky” and “Mme. Greeneva” (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 186-187,). According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, in Lovecraft’s mind:
Sonia was a properly ‘assimilated’ Jew, like his friend Samuel Loveman: she had adopted the mores of the prevailing Anglo-Saxon culture, so that her ethnic background was not an obstacle.
The one area of Jewish culture which Lovecraft engages without prejudice and stereotyping—but still with a great deal of ambivalence—is that of Kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism. Bobby Derie has recently examined Lovecraft’s fascination with S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk, which he saw onstage in New York in 1925, and with the film of The Golem, based on Gustav Meyrink’s novel, which had not yet been translated into English. Lovecraft mentions both works in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” and has this to say about Jewish culture:
A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction.
Broadly speaking, Lovecraft’s understanding of Kabbalah as a complex mystical tradition that is both emanational and linguistic is fairly accurate, based on his readings in the tradition of Christian Kabbalah and Hermetic magic—as well as the Encyclopedia Britannica. Then again, there’s also something rather silly in his typically portentous “dark glimpses” and “spectral glamour.” This stereotypically dark and mysterious view of Kabbalah, which had already been studied carefully by non-Jews since at least the Renaissance, reinforces both Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and his antisemitism. For Lovecraft, Jewish magic (and some Kabbalistic rituals are unquestionably magical in their intent) is dark magic.
Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” is an overt example of his prejudice regarding Jews and Jewish magic. The evil Robert Suydam, the subject of Thomas Malone’s ill-fated investigation, is known as the author of an “out-of-print pamphlet…on the Kabbalah and the Faustus legend.” Indeed, Suydam is something of a Faust figure. In the first part of the story, when Suydam is presented as old and decrepit, he is seen:
loitering on the benches around Borough Hall in conversation with groups of swarthy, evil-looking strangers. When he spoke it was to babble of unlimited powers almost within his grasp, and to repeat with knowing leers such mystical words or names as ‘Sephiroth’, ‘Ashmodai’, and ‘Samaël.’
Later, at the time of Suydam’s wedding, when his youth and vigor seem to have been restored, Malone takes part in a raid of one of Suydam’s Red Hook properties, where horrifying paintings and words are found on the walls:
The paintings were appalling—hideous monsters of every shape and size, and parodies on human outlines which cannot be described. The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but whathe did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough. One frequently repeated motto was in a sort of Hebraised Hellenistic Greek, and suggested the most terrible daemon-evocations of the Alexandrian decadence:
What Lovecraft calls “Hebraised Hellenistic Greek” is in some instances Hellenized Hebrew, or simply Hebrew. Without unpacking all the terms, we can note that “Sephiroth” are the emanations of the Kabbalistic Etz Hayyim (the Tree of Life), “Adonai” is Hebrew for Lord, frequently appearing in Jewish prayers; “Saday” is a corruption of “Shaddai,” Hebrew for “Almighty”; and “Heloym” is probably a corruption of “Elohim,” another designation of divinity, in the plural. “Iehova” (Jehovah) is an Anglicized pronunciation of the “Tetragrammaton,” in Jewish belief the unpronounceable four-letter name of God (יהוה), and “Emmanvel” (Emmanuel) is a name associated with the Messiah, that is, “Messias.” “Samaël” and “Ashmodai” are indeed prominent figures in Kabbalistic demonology.
Suydam’s associates, we are told, “were of Mongoloid stock, originating somewhere in or near Kurdistan,” which Malone notes “is the land of the Yezidis, last survivors of the Persian devil-worshippers.” The Yazidis are hardly devil-worshippers; their faith combines elements of Christianity and Islam, and they have been subject to genocidal persecution in recent years by the Islamic State in Iraq. Be that as it may, the black magic in “The Horror at Red Hook” seems primarily to be drawn from Kabbalah, despite Lovecraft having picked up these references from the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The figure of Lilith arises during the crisis of “The Horror at Red Hook,” when Malone experiences what the “specialists” later call a “dream,” a dream that forces him to resign from the police force and leaves him with what today we would term PTSD. In a Tor blog post on Lovecraft’s story, the horror writer Anne M. Pillsworth flippantly but I think accurately comments on Lilith’s role:
Lilith, supposedly Adam’s first wife and the consort of archangels! Here she’s sexuality in its most terrifying and least sensuous guise—she has become it, not even female, a naked and leprous thing. That titters. A lot. And paws. And quaffs virgin blood. And hauls male corpses around with insolent ease. Plus phosphorescent is so not the same as radiant or beaming, as a bride should be. Phosphorescence is what mushrooms put out, or rotting things, a fungal light.
The magically reanimated corpse of Robert Suydam flees from what appears to be his “wedding” with Lilith, destroying her golden pedestal (which Pillsworth accurately calls “phallic”) and dissolving into “jellyish dissolution”—whereupon Malone mercifully faints.
In his comprehensive article on Lilith (which appears in his compendium volume simply called Kabbalah), Gershom Scholem traces her origins to Babylonian demonology, and then on through thousands of years of biblical, Talmudic, midrashic, and kabbalistic texts. The common belief that she was Adam’s first wife, who insisted on her equality with him during sexual intercourse, is related in turn to her being regarded as a threat to women in childbirth and a strangler of infants. In Kabbalah, she eventually came to be seen “as the permanent partner of Samael, queen of the realm of the forces of evil (the sitra ahra). In that world (the world of the kelippot) she fulfills a function parallel to that of the Shekhinah (“Divine Presence”) in the world of sanctity: just as the Shekhinah is the mother of the House of Israel, so Lilith is the mother of the unholy folk who constituted the ‘mixed multitude’ (the erev-rav) and ruled over all that is impure.”
Lovecraft’s corrupt but essentially accurate understanding of Jewish concepts informs his sensational narrative, though it is Kabbalah itself, as a demonic set of figures, beliefs, and practices that comes to rule “over all that is impure.” Thus, the antisemitism which pervades his attitudes and correspondence insinuates itself into his fiction as well.
Having briefly surveyed Lovecraft’s views of Jews, Judaism, and Jewish mysticism, and considered how these play out in one of his stories, I want to make a few observations about my engagement with Lovecraft in my own poetry. Lovecraft’s presence is different from that of other antisemitic writers who have had an impact on my work. Like most poets, I am in part an echo chamber, in which one hears the voices of those who have come before me, including such great but vexing modernists as Eliot, Stevens, and Pound. This is a matter of form or style: tone, cadence, turns of syntax, charged words, conscious or unconscious gestures and allusions. For me, Lovecraft’s poetry, with its eighteenth-century rhyme schemes and skillfully handled but deliberately antiquated rhetoric, is much less engaging than his fiction. Rather, I return again and again to his fascinating inventions, which means that it is the stuff of Lovecraft’s stories that I like to play with—selectively, gingerly, and no doubt due to its very loaded themes.
These occasional games coincide with my move, in recent years, to more narrative poetry. Unlike any number of recent writers in the Lovecraft tradition, I have not been inclined to directly revise his work in order to undermine and deconstruct his prejudices. But this is not to say that my appropriations have neglected to address his faults entirely. Irony is my mode, though there is always an underlying sense of transcendental desire. Lovecraft’s cosmic horror, including its morbidities regarding race, ethnicity, and gender is turned inside out.
One episode in my book From the Files of the Immanent Foundation involves Emma, an Afro-Caribbean psychic who is sent by the Foundation to a conference in the “Summerland.” There, in her astral form, she has a one-night stand with a handsome fellow who may or may not be related to Wilbur Whateley. When Emma, whose handler is none other than Armitage (now retired from his post at Miskatonic University), discovers how she was set up, she creates a computer virus that wreaks havoc with the workings of the entire Foundation. In my poem The Adventures of Pascal Wanderlust (in the collection In a Broken Star), Pascal, an androgenous adventurer and sorcerer-for-hire, has a disturbing vision:
…So Wanderlust ascends—
“Past Midnight! Past the Morning Star!” Her Voice
rushes by in the wind. The tzinorot beckon.
Each Face gazes outward as Wanderlust approaches.
These are the boundaries of the infinite spaces,
the non-Euclidean forms, studied in Antarctica
and Provence. Elder Things hanging with Shimon
bar-Yochai among the hills of Galilee. L’cha Dodi!
The throbbing in Pascal’s temples is more painful
now as the Book opens, floating in the silent void.
The Zohar, aka The Necronomicon. Sacred fantasy.
Drawings by Steve Ditko. Story by Stan Lee.
Later, Pascal, depressed, will take a walk on the beach and meet up with an old friend:
Wanderlust takes the new express from Innisfree
to Innsmouth. Settles into the cushy seat. Please
enjoy our complimentary Wi-Fi. Old-fashioned
Pascal prefers telepathy, tunes in expecting messages
from the beyond. Comes up with nothing but static.
The maggidim have been strangely silent. They have
nothing to say in the face of self-doubt. Negative
capability? Magic, they insist, is an art of the will.
So what will you do now? Wanderlust walks along
the strand, looking out to Devil Reef. An old friend
swims in for a brief visit. Stares at Pascal coldly.
“Nice to breathe the air of upper earth now and then.”
“Pascal Wanderlust is nothing but trouble! Sorry,
but that’s what great-great-grandmother said to me
before I left. Tries to right the balance and upsets it
every time. I told them the design was flawed ten
thousand years ago, but why listen to us? We dwelt
in the Abyss before the Beginning. What do we know?
And honestly, Pascal, all those Miskatonic researchers
following your last visit. Former Foundation agents,
every one. Take some advice from an old school chum.
You were a goth with eyeliner and your first pair of Docs.
I was a rich kid from Ohio obsessed with my ancestry.
I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”
Looking at these verses now, it occurs to me that Pascal, a sweet Jewish boy-girl who had a Bar/Bat Mitzvah attended by Deep Ones and Elder Things—and about whom I’m still writing—is in one respect Lovecraft’s spiritual descendent. This does not make Wanderlust, or Wanderlust’s author, altogether happy. But as the aquatic being that was once Robert Olmstead says to his old friend Pascal, “I learned I could change—the hard way. You can too.”
While men are thinking of the planets, other worlds may be thinking of us. At least the curious phenomena of that old New England house suggested that possibility… An unforgettable new story of uneathly wonder by two masters of the science-fiction terror tale.
Epigraph to “The Murky Glass” in Saturn: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1957
August Derleth was one of the original creators of what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. His contributions started while Lovecraft was alive with “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932) and “The Thing That Walked on the Wind” (1933). After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937 and the creation of Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s work, August Derleth would continue to write a number of tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in the Lovecraftian vein. These were not written immediately with an eye toward filling out the Lovecraft collections or even his own anthologies, but for sale to magazines, mostly Weird Tales, and published over a series of years. The stories can be divided into three groups:
Older stories written with Mark Schorer that were not published until later (“Spawn of the Maelstrom” (1939) and “The Evil Ones” (1940, later reprinted as “The Horror from the Depths”).
Pulpy horror tales (“The Return of Hastur” (1939), “Passing of Eric Holm” (1939), “The Sandwin Compact” (1940), “Ithaqua” (1941), “Beyond the Threshold” (1941), “The Dweller in Darkness” (1944), “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Whippoorwill in the Hills” (1948), “The House in the Valley” (1953), “The Seal of R’lyeh” (1957, also as “The Seal of the Damned”), and the Trail of Cthulhu series (“The Trail of Cthulhu” (1944, also as “The House on Curwen Street”), “The Watcher from the Sky” (1945), “The Testament of Clairmont Boyd” (1949, also as “The Gorge Beyond Salapunco”), “The Keeper of the Key” (1951), and “The Black Island” (1952)).
“Posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft: The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), “The Survivor” (1954), “Wentworth’s Day” (1957), “The Peabody Heritage” (1957), “The Gable Window” (1957, also as “The Murky Glass”), “The Ancestor” (1957), “The Shadow Out of Space” (1957), “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1957), “The Shuttered Room” (1959), “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” (1959), “Witches’ Hollow” (1962), “The Shadow in the Attic” (1964), “The Dark Brotherhood” (1966), “The Horror from the Middle Span” (1967), “Innsmouth Clay” (1971), and “The Watchers Out of Time” (1974); and Robert E. Howard: “The House in the Oaks” (1971).
The individual merit of these stories varies considerably, but it should be apparent that taken together they represent a substantial body of “Lovecraftian” fiction: 34 short stories, novelettes, and a novel—and Lovecraft’s own published fiction only amounts to 65 stories (plus ~33 revisions and collaborations like “Four O’Clock” (1949), “The Curse of Yig” (1929),“The Night Ocean” (1936), etc.)…and Derleth had, as well as his fictional input to the Mythos, a strong editorial influence on how Lovecraft’s fiction was interpreted, through his introductions to various anthologies and collections of Lovecraft’s work, analyses of his fiction, press releases etc. This is why after Derleth’s death in 1971 there was pushback from fans like Richard L. Tierney in “The Derleth Mythos”—and lent impetus to a Lovecraft purest movement in publishing and scholarship.
Much of the animus against Derleth is centered on his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft. To better understand the reasoning behind these, it is important to understand what Derleth publicly claimed and presented these stories as:
Not for twelve years has the byline of the late, great Howard Phillips Lovecraft appeared on any new work–and it appears now only because, among the papers of the late R. H. Barlow are found Lovecraft’s notes and/or beginnings for the seven stories which go to make up this collection–all now completed by August Derleth, just as he completed Lovecraft’s unfinished novel, The Lurker at the Threshold.
Here are seven tales–two novelettes and five shorter stories–which belong to virtually every period of Lovecraft’s work–from the early fantasies (The Lamp of Alhazred), through the New England pieces (Wentworth’s Day and The Peabody Heritage) to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Gable Window, The Shadow out of Space, The Survivor). Taken together, these seven stories are a nostalgic backward look to the macabre world in which H. P. Lovecraft was supreme.
These are tales of terrifying witchcraft, of cosmic horror, of quaint magic, such as only H. P. Lovecraft could have conceived. Here in these pages Great Cthulhu walks again, the Dunwich-Arkham country lives once more, and, in a final allegory, Lovecraft himself is portrayed in a quasi-autobiographical manner.
August Derleth’s completion of these stories was a labor of love. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has so closely emulated the Lovecraft style as he–as these stories testify.
The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap
Among the papers of the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most compelte was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
The works in The Survivor and Others and the novel The Lurker at the Threshold were all presented as “unfinished” works, or works built up from Lovecraft’s notes. The truth was quite different: Lovecraft left no such incomplete stories. What he did leave was a commonplace book containing various bare ideas for stories, some fragments of prose, and a body of correspondence that included Lovecraft’s dreams and other ideas for stories never written during his lifetime. From these, Derleth wrote his “posthumous collaborations”—some of them (“The Lamp of Alhazred”) contained some genuine text from Lovecraft, but most of them were little more than stories vaguely suggested from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, as close to pure Derleth as most of Lovecraft’s “ghostwriting” efforts were pure Lovecraft. Derleth’s marketing of these works as “by Lovecraft and Derleth” was seen by some as dishonest…and worse than that, those that took Derleth at his word often took the works to be primarily Lovecraft’s, such as David Punter’s influential textbook The Literature of Terror (first edition 1980, second edition 1996).
It should be noted, however, thas as much as the publication of these stories always emphasized Lovecaft’s name and contribution, this was first and foremost a marketing gimmick. In private, just as Lovecraft would acknowledge his own contributions in his revision and ghostwriting work, Derleth would frankly acknowledge the full extant of his authorship:
[…] & Ballantine’s paperback of THE SURVIVOR & OTHERS (emphasizing Lovecraft, understandably, over Derleth, who did 97% of the writing) […]
The pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of and contributions to the Mythos has led to his stories being largely neglected by scholars and fans. Yet many of Derleth’s stories are worth at least a little study, and some understanding of how and why they were written and published can give help elucidate the picture of Mythos publishing post-Lovecraft.
As should be clear, August Derleth didn’t start out writing “posthumous collaborations” as soon as Lovecraft’s corpse was cold. His first was The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), which has the distinction of being the first Mythos novel. Including Lovecraft’s name in this work can be barely defended—the ~50,000 word novel contains two unrelated fragments from Lovecraft’s papers, “The Round Tower” and “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England, of Daemons in No Humane Shape” which come to ~1,200 words—but it is clear that Derleth is using Lovecraft’s name predominantly for marketing purposes, and does not assay another “posthumous collaboration” until late 1953 or early 1954:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready–
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more–or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
By 1954, Weird Tales under editor Dorothy McIlwraith was on its last legs, having switched to bimonthly and a digest format, and even re-instated reprints to cut costs—which included reprinting some of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth was a loyal contributor and could have resurrected the “posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft” gimmick in an effort to help save the magazine—or, considering that Derleth had married in 1953 and his wife was pregnant, perhaps he simply needed the money. In either case, it was too little, too late to save Weird Tales, which folded with the September 1954 issue, before any of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” except “The Survivor” (WT July 1954) could be published.
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Despite McIlwraith’s hopes, no one picked up publication of Weird Tales, and August Derleth was left with a handful of “posthumous collaborations” and very few markets in which to publish them. Eventually, Derleth would publish these stories through Arkham House in a volume titled The Survivor and Others (1957)…yet there is an interesting note in that book regarding one of the stories:
The Gable Window, copyright 1957, by Candar Publishing Company, Inc., (as The Murky Glass), for Saturn, May 1957.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
Derleth had managed to get “The Gable Window” published, albeit under a different title—which is no great surprise, many editors change titles to suit their tastes, and some editors go further: they might break up or combine chapters and paragraphs, revise wording, even excise extraneous text or revise endings. Lovecraft decried these practices and would in later years be adamant that the editor not even change a comma, but Derleth was probably more practical and less particular: weird fiction was, for Derleth, often more of a potboiler effort than a major form of personal expression as it was with Lovecraft.
As it happens, a close (line-by-line) comparison between the Saturn text of “The Murky Glass” and the Survivor text of “The Gable Window” shows a number of differences between the two texts, most relatively minor. Without access to surviving drafts, it’s difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of revision or editorial interference, but by looking at a handful of the differences we might get an idea of the editorial thought behind those changes—and this is especially the case since “The Gable Window” text in The Survivor and Others is the basis for all other publications of the text. “The Murky Window” has never been reprinted as-is.
“The Murky Glass”
“The Gable Window”
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor. To tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and cold, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SA103)
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor, for to tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SO79-80)
One of the characteristics of Derleth’s pastiche style of Lovecraft is long, run-on sentences; a tendency that is more marked when sentences (and paragraphs) that were separate in “The Murky Glass” are conjoined in “The Gable Window.” Whether this was a result of an editor chopping up Derleth’s initial draft, or Derleth splicing together things to make longer sentences and paragraphs when preparing it for book publication is unclear, and either is likely. Derleth’s choice to omit “cold” from the description of the gable room probably reflects that he never refers to the room as particularly cold in the remainder of the story; a little clean-up.
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession of the house. (SA105)
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession. (SO82)
Pulp writers typically had to shave words from a manuscript to meet tight wordcount limits, so the question here is: did Derleth include “of the house” originally and decide to excise it as unnecessary in “The Gable Window?” Or did the editors of Saturn think the line was unclear and add “of the house” to clarify?
Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, and these are as follows:
One: All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. Two: All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. Three: The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SA108)
“Dear Fred,” he wrote, “The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, as follows:
“1) All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. “2) All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. “3) The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
“You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question…” (SO86)
The most notable changes between the two texts are format. The Saturn editors preferred italics to quotation marks, and spelling out words and months to abbreviations, The Survivor text is pithier. Which is better for reading is a bit of an open question; as a digest Saturn had to be divided into two columns per page, which might encourage shorter paragraphs, more frequent breaks, and the more streamlined experience italics give…or perhaps Derleth changed his mind.
What was I to make of these curious instructions? (SA108)
What was I to make of these strange instructions? (SO86)
Case in point, “curious” and “strange” in this context are basically synonymous, so the changing from one to the other is essentially down to personal preference rather than any kind of artistic or editorial justification. These are the kind of changes in word choice that you might expect to see either from an editor determined to change something or a writer that just liked to fiddle.
Most of the differences in “The Murky Glass” and “The Gable Window” are like that: formatting, word choice, a little cutting or rearranging, mostly in The Survivor and Others text. There are a handful of typos as well: “scratching” (“Murky”) becomes “cratching” (“Gable”); “Shanteks” (“Murky”) becomes “Shantaks” (“Gable”), “myths” (“Murky”) becomes “Mythos” (“Gable”), “subterranean” (“Murky”) becomes “subterrene” (“Gable”) and other bits like that. There is one rather significant and noticeable difference, however, in a particular passage:
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the . Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SA109)
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SO87)
Either Derleth decided to insert several eldritch tomes in “The Gable Window,” or whoever was setting text or type for “The Murky Glass” dropped a line; given the odd period right before Celano, I lean toward the latter. Little printing errors like that just happen sometimes.
Even taken all together, the sum of these small textual differences do not substantially impact the story; this is not a Mythos equivalent of the Wicked Bible, but it shows that you should not take a given version of a text for granted. How do you know that the text you are reading in a Lovecraft book is what Lovecraft set down—or is by Lovecraft at all? How many editors have had their hands on it? Textual errors and variations have propped up and been carried forward…sometimes for decades and through multiple versions. In many online versions of “Herbert West—Reanimator” for example, you will find the text prefaced with a spurious quote from Dracula—which was not in Lovecraft’s original text or any major subsequent printing; it appears to have been added on to a freely available text on the internet sometime in the 2000s and to have spread from there, even into print editions that use Wikisource as their source.
You might well imagine how a reader in the 1950s might have felt as they sat down with their “new” book of Lovecraft stories, and wondered to themselves: did Lovecraft write this?
The point is all the more cogent because “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” is one of Derleth’s most poorly-received “posthumous collaborations.” We’ve focused so far on textual criticism and publishing history, but we haven’t discussed the content of the story or how it fits into the larger body of Mythos fiction. To understand that, let’s rewind back to how this story came to be.
After writing “The Survivor” (which was based on some actual notes Lovecraft left for a story of that name), Derleth turned to Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, which had been preserved by R. H. Barlow, for inspiration. Two plot-germs probably inspired “The Gable Window”:
Something seen at Oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house. (29)
Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harbored devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilization. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it. (41)
Derleth identified the second entry (“Pane of…”) as the genesis for the story in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959); Derleth scholar John Haefele adds the other (“Something seen…”) as a probable inspiration in A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 224, and I have to agree (the distinction between “Oriel” and “Gable” in this case being close enough for amateurs to mistake one for the other). The story is, although this is not immediately apparent, a tie-in to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” since the protagonist’s uncle is Henry Akeley—Derleth would be the first pasticheur to exploit genealogical connections, adding cousins to Lovecraft’s family trees in stories like “The Shuttered Room,” though far from the last.
The set-up for the plot is familiar: a relation has died, and the heir must goes to the old house and finds they’ve inherited a bit of a Mythos mess. Lovecraft himself never used this exact formulation, though “The Moon-Bog” and “The Rats in the Walls” both involve an heir rebuilding an ancestral manse or castle. Derleth had already written something similar in “The Return of Hastur” and “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” and would use the premise again in “The Seal of R’lyeh,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “The Shuttered Room,” “The Shadow on the Attic,” “The Horror from the Middle Span,” and “The Watchers out of Time.” It is ultimately a variation on the haunted house tale, or even of the Gothic inheritance of an ancestral house or castle, and there are a million different variations on that familiar theme, and Derleth was well-versed in such tales.
The pseudo-haunting takes its time to develop. While not every “posthumous collaboration” that Derleth wrote was explicitly part of the Mythos, “The Gable Window” was intended to be such a story, and so Derleth is careful to place it not far from Dunwich and Arkham, to drop references to Miskatonic University, and to build up to the succession of revelations. His prose doesn’t try to capture Lovecraft’s more ultraviolet style, and there is at least one passage which is very un-Lovecraftian:
No matter how I tried, I failed utterly to catch any sight of the cat, though I was disturbed in this fashion fully half a dozen times, until I was so upset that, had I caught sight of the cat, I would probably have shot it.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
It is always difficult to tell with Derleth whether certain details are drawn from his great familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence and life and how many are original to him. The name of the cat “Little Sam,” for example, recalls “Little Sam Perkins,” one of the neighborhood cats that Lovecraft doted on while he lived at 66 College St. If Derleth had incorporated some of Lovecraft’s material from his letters about Sam Perkins, we could say for certain, but Derleth didn’t. Instead, Little Sam occupies largely the same purpose in the text as the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” does, as an animal attuned to the strange dangers in the house.
As the story progresses, Derleth presents his interpretation of the Mythos. Keep in mind, “The Gable Window” was originally intended for magazine publication, and not necessarily to an audience that would be immediately familiar with any of the preceeding Mythos fiction, so this is a point he tends to bring up more often and more explicitly in his 1940s and 1950s fiction to introduce it to new audiences; when reading chunks of his fiction at once, it can get a bit repetitive:
It was the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness, or at least, so I took it to be. Did it matter whether you called it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones—the idiot god, Azathoth, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity; Yog-Sothoth, the all-in-one and one-in-all, subject to neither the laws of time nor of space, co-existent with all time and con-terminous with space; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Ancient Ones; Great Cthulhu, waiting to rise again from hidden R’lyeh in the depths of the sea; the unspeakable Hastur, Lord of the Interstellar Spaces; Shub-Niggurath, the black goat of the woods with a thousand young?
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
Derleth was capable of subtlety in his fiction and the slow and careful development of mood, but this recital or regurgitation of blasphemous names and casting the whole implicitly complex artificial mythology into a Manichaean dichtomy is not an example of it. This tendency to cram everything into a story is very fannish, but in the case of this story it also serves as build-up for the next section: the reader is basically given a crash course on the Mythos so that they can be prepped to see where the story is heading. Mythos fans can pat themselves on the back for catching the references, and new readers can at least sort of follow along.
In portraying the Mythos this way, Derleth also repeats many of the inherent prejudices in Mythos fiction in brief and in miniature. For example:
There were also more recognizable human beings, however distorted—stunted and dwarfed Oreintals living in a cold place, to judge by their attire, and a race born of miscegenation, with certain characteristics of the batrachian beings, yet unmistakably human.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 90
The “stunted and dwarfed Orientals” are probably the Tcho-Tcho; the “race born of msicegenation” probably the inhabitants of Innsmouth. It’s notable that Derleth is more explicit in his language here than Lovecraft ever was in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and he gets even more explicit on the next page when he writes: “Deep Ones together with humans of partly similar origin: hybrid white” (91). The dry technical nature of the language robs the idea of Innsmouth hybrids of their mystery and mystique; he might as well be describing a creole colony…and that kind of misses the entire point of Lovecraft’s story. “Innsmouth” presented miscegnation (without ever using the word) as the intended accepted explanation for why the people of Innsmouth were hated and feared by their neighbors; racial discrimination was the red herring that concealed the much weirder revelation that the horror wasn’t a mixed race Pacific Islander or Asian community, but something altogether less homo sapiens.
Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, there isn’t an excess of plot. The use of the journal excerpts allows Derleth to indulge himself a bit in describing exotic landscapes and beings, and to build mood. The result is something of an orgy of evidence for the Mythos, touching on many different entities and places, some of which would be unfamiliar to Mythos fans. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain laziness to Derleth’s approach. Why would the words that activate the glass from Leng be “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn?” That is the motto of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu,” but here Derleth uses it where another writer of a more mundane demonology might have used “abracadabra.”
Pedantic nitpicking aside, “The Gable Window” comes to a well-telegraphed end…and a relatively light legacy. Readers of “The Murky Glass” in Saturn might have been intrigued by the idea of an extraterrestrial glass that showed alien worlds, which has had its fair number of variations in fantasy already (e.g. “The Wonderful Window” by Lord Dunsany), but Mythos fans took very little notice of it. Derleth introduces the Sand-Dwellers in this story, for example, but never used or referenced them elsewhere again, and very few other authors have picked up the threads of this story (most notably Adam Niswander in his 1998 novel The Sand Dwellers). The biggest impact the story had has been on the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, which gladly incorporated both the Glass from Leng and the Sand-Dwellers into its version of the Mythos, and has continued to make some small use of them in every edition since.
While it is impossible to say if Derleth himself was unsatisfied with “The Gable Window” as written, but there is the suggestion that he might have been inspired to make another attempt:
This glass also has attributes similar to the tower window in The Lurker at the Threshold, which Derleth derived from Lovecraft’s “The Rose Window” prose fragment. Referring to the fragment as the “notes relative to the mysterious window or ‘carved surface with convex glass circle seven inches in diameter in centre’ related primarily to a story to be set on ‘Central Hill, Kingsport’ in the ancient house of ‘Edward Orne,'” Derleth admits how, “This story remains in essence to be written, since not enough was borrowed from this set of notes to invalidate a second story; and I mean to write it, possibly in novel length, time and circumstances permitting, under the title The Watchers Out of Time” (“Unfinished Manuscripts”).
Derleth would not live long enough to finish “The Watchers Out of Time,” but it may well be that the fragment of a story he did write owes something to “The Gable Window,” since he felt he hadn’t quite exhausted the possibilities of the glass from Leng. One had to wonder if the massive spread of televisions in United States homes after World War II played any influence in what was, in many ways, an eldritch audiovisual receiver.
Taken as a whole, “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” represents much of what has soured Derleth’s reputation among Lovecraft fans and scholars: it is neither a terrible or a terrific weird tale, but a relatively average story that remixes some very familiar tropes and adds a smorgasboard of Mythos references, in addition to a somewhat preachy version of Derleth’s particular take on the Mythos (although it leaves out the elemental associations). Perhaps most damning, in every publication it was presented as a joint work with Lovecraft, who had nothing to do with it. Derleth was a competent weird fictioneer, and that’s what this story was intended to be when it was written with Weird Tales in mind: the Mythos as a reliable product, with Lovecraft’s name as a marketing draw.
Which is probably the most damning thing. Lovecraft was an auteur who took painstaking efforts with his stories, and whether or not you like his person or his prose, his stories represent a great deal of work from the initial plotting to the craft of writing. Derleth, by comparison, was much more restricted in the time and energy he could or would devote to his weird fiction, and while the stories might have been passable to pulp audiences in the 1950s, they are consistently outshone by Lovecraft’s actual fiction, and Derleth’s conception of the Mythos is shown to be much more limited and imperfect than that of his friend…as though viewed through a murky glass.
“The Murky Glass” was published in Saturn May 1957, and was not published again under that title. “The Gable Window” has been published in multiple anthologies and collections of Lovecraft and Derleth’s Mythos fiction, including The Watchers Out of Time (2008, Del Rey).
THROUGH rifts of cloud the moon’s soft silver slips; A little rain has fallen with the night, Which from the emerald under-sky still drips Where the magnolias open, broad and white.
So near my window I might reach my hand And touch these milky stars, that to and fro Wave, odorous. . . . Yet ’twas in another land —
How long ago, my love, how long ago!
Ina Coolbrith, “A Memory”
She was born Josephine (sometimes Josephina) Donna Smith in 1841, the niece of that Joseph Smith who was founder and prophet of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. After her father’s death a few months after she was born, her mother Agnes Moulton Coolbrith became the sixth of Joseph Smith’s wives. After Joseph Smith’s murder in 1844, Agnes fled with her children to California under her maiden name, and hid their past association with the Latter-Day Saints for fear of discrimination.
Ina Coolbrith was a poet from childhood, and published her first poem in 1856. A brief marriage at age 17 saw her the victim of spousal abuse, the death of an infant son, and finally a sensational divorce in 1861. The family moved to San Francisco, where Ina found herself in the leading literary circle, associating with luminaries such as Bret Harte, Ambrose Bierce, and Charles Warren Stoddard. She was lauded for her poetry, but struggled financially, and in time took a position as the first librarian of the Oakland Public Library, where she mentored a young Jack London. Coolbrith faced discrimination in her career because she was a woman, and eventually was replaced by her own nephew.
In 1906 Coolbrith’s home was destroyed by fire in the great San Francisco earthquake; friends managed to scrape together funds to build her a new house, including Mark Twain, who provided autographed photographs of himself to be sold for that purpose. She continued to gain fame and honors as California’s premier poet, and in 1915 was named California’s poet laureate…the first poet laureate of any American state.
Clark Ashton Smith probably read Coolbrith’s poems in the Overland Monthly, or if not there, was probably introduced to her work by his mentor George Sterling: in 1917 he had offered Smith a copy of the Poems of Charles Warren Stoddard (1917), which Coolbrith had edited (SU 152). Both Smith and Coolbrith appeared in Golden Songs of the Golden State (1917) and Literary California (1918), so they could hardly have missed each other’s work. Coolbrith had apparently heard of Smith, then a teenage prodigy, no later than 1918 (SU 164). They were not apparently in direct correspondence at this time, but through Sterling the young poet was hooked into Lovecraft’s Bohemian literary circle, and through these connections Sterling, Coolbrith, and Smith all benefited from the generosity of philanthropists like Albert M. Bender (SU 247).
It is possible they met during one of Smith’s infrequent trips to visit Sterling and San Francisco, but if so, no record has come to light…and Coolbrith would have been increasingly housebound due to arthritis in the 1920s, though Smith reported second-hand:
[Andrew] Dewing has returned from S.F. He met Sterling and Ina COolbrith during his visit. He describes Miss Coolbrith as being bright and sprightly in defiance of her seventy (or is it eighty?) odd years. He even takes an interest in her free verse, and has her opinion on everything from Bolshevism to Amy Lowell!
It would have been natural enough for the two California poets to correspond; while they were of two different generations they shared friends and literary interests in common. However, only a single letter has been published; how many other letters there might have been are unknown, though Coolbrith certainly sent at least one to Smith. This letter does, however, give the flavor of the things they discussed:
Dear Miss Coolbrith:
Thank you for your kind letter, which I had meant to acknowledge long before this. Diffidence more than anything else, has restrained me: But I would have written a little sooner, if I had known that you had a birthday in March I was delighted by the account in the San Francisco papers: it is good to know that one true poet, at least, is “not without honour.” Surely you deserve it—and more.
Miss [Mary Eileen] Ahern tells me that you are having difficulty in finding a publisher. Truly, I am fitted to sympathize, since I am engaged in the same elusive and exasperating search. The publication of my last book was due to the generosity of a local printer who, I am afraid, has barely cleared expenses… In your case, surely the difficulty is due to the present day confusion of poetic values—or (one is tempted to say) the almost total lack of them. “Bedlam [is] loose, and the bars are down.” But perhaps there will be a lucid interval, some day.
I am very much on the shelf at present, with a lame foot (a truly Byronic impediment!) but some day I mean to send you a few of the local wild-flowers, if you will accept them.
With thanks for your appreciation, and all best wishes, I am, dear Miss Coolbrith,
The letter was almost certainly occasioned by Ina Coolbrith’s birthday on March 10th, which was marked by great festivities and reported on in many papers. Smith had published a collection of poetry titled Ebony and Crystal (1922) through the Auburn Journal (the local newspaper), and prepared a second book titled Sandalwood (1925) to be published later that same year, and neither was particularly profitable. To help make up his bill, Smith worked part-time at the newspaper, providing poems, columns, and editing.
Mary Eileen Ahern was a librarian in Oakland. Coolbrith may have been looking for a publisher for Retrospect: Los Angeles (1925), a large folded broadside containing the poem of the same name, or possibly the collection of her later poems that would become Wings of Sunset (1929), which was published a year after her death in 1928.
Smith was “on the shelf” because of an accident during woodcutting, where he’d dropped a block of wood on his toe and apparently had broken it badly: he reported to Sterling that the injury happened ~13 January 1925, and couldn’t walk into town until the end of June (SU 247-253). The injury impacted Smith’s ability to do outdoor work such as picking fruit, which may have influenced his shift toward fantasy fiction: “The Abominations of Yondo” was written in 1925, and would be published in the Overland Monthly (which Coolbrith had co-edited) in April 1926.
It is a short and a sweet letter, from one California poet to another. While much of Smith’s latter-day fame rests on his weird fiction and fantastic poetry, it is important to remember that he was working within a tradition of California poets and interacting with their literary society—at least, as well as he could from Auburn, which was far from the literary centers of the Golden State. Smith’s admiration for her poetry appears to have been reciprocated: we know, for example, that only a year before her death she held or was present at a reading of Smith’s work:
One can imagine all the women writers gathered together, as the white-haired eighty-six-year-old woman painstakingly pried open a thin volume…perhaps with a dried wildflower between the pages to mark the place…and what would she read, from the young man who had been a friend of her friends, to who she had written and who had written her back?
There was never any question about the name of our publishing house—the imprint to be used on what we then thought perhaps the first of three volumes. Arkham Housesuggested itself at once, since it was Lovecraft’s own well-known, widely-used place-name for legend-haunted Salem, Massachusetts, in his remarkable fiction; it seemed to use that this was fitting and that Lovecraft himself would have approved it enthusiastically. […]
Nevertheless, the buyers of our first book were sufficiently enthusiastic to persuade me to believe there might be a market for small editions of books in the general domain of fantasy, with emphasis on the macabre or science-fiction.
Before he was a professional writer of weird fiction, Lovecraft was an amateur. He came out of his shell in the 1910s with the amateur press movement, and his first weird fiction was published not in pulp magazines or anthologies, but in small amateur journals—and he carried that amateur attitude with him for the rest of his life. While Lovecraft did not disdain being paid for his work, he disliked writing for money rather than for art. He loved weird fiction, and that appreciation and passion became a part of his legend.
So too, it became a part of the legend of Arkham House.
It is easy today to consider Arkham House as a mere business venture. It was not the first small press in the United States, nor the first to publish anthologies and novels of weird fiction. The Popular Fiction Publishing Co., the publishers of Weird Tales, had tried their hand at a slim anthology titled The Moon Terror and Others(1927), culled from the magazine; it was a commercial failure that took decades to sell out. More success was found in the United Kingdom with the Not At Night series edited by Christine Campbell Thomson, which had its pick of the most gruesome Weird Tales, and brought writers like H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard into hardback publication.
Yet mainstream publishers, while they might tolerate H. P. Lovecraft in the occasional anthology like Creeps By Night: Chills and Thrills(1931), would never bring out a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction during his lifetime, or in the years immediately after. Nor was Robert E. Howard collected during his lifetime, except for the Western stitch-up novel A Gent from Bear Creek (1937). Popular as they might have been in the pages of Weird Tales, many of the most prominent Weird Talers lacked recognition outside of the pulps and the growing body of organized science-fiction/fantasy fandom.
Imagine for a moment that you were at a newsstand in July 1954, and you put down your thirty-five cents for the penultimate issue of Weird Tales. It was the 278th issue of the Unique Magazine, which during its initial run had been published since 1923. The first story in that issue you might have read was “The Survivor,” one of August Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft, worked up from a note in Lovecraft’s commonplace book.
If that story resonated with you—if you wanted to read more from this “Lovecraft” person—how would you do it? Try to buy back issues of Weird Tales? Hope for a reprint in another pulp? Or, perhaps, you would note the advertisement for Arkham House in the back of the issue, and write to them for a catalog, or mail off your check or money order for one of the advertised titles.
That is what Arkham House was, for much of its existence: for decades, it was practically the sole source for Lovecraft’s works and those related to him. As it expanded, it also published works by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Robert Bloch, Ray Bradbury, Henry S. Whitehead, Frank Belknap Long, and many more. These were relatively expensive books at the time, in limited print runs, but it was not the limited book market of today. These books took years and sometimes decades to sell through 2,000-4,000 copies.
August Derleth did not get rich off Arkham House. It was a business, to be sure, and he was by necessity a businessman as well as a writer, an editor, and a fan. Yet if it had just been about the money, or just about Lovecraft, Derleth could have stopped long decades before his death and focused more on his own writing. Instead…he inspired competition.
By the close of the first decade of publishing, the seeming success of Arkham House had brought into being a dozen other small houses in direct competition, following the lead of Arkham House.
Derleth doesn’t name names, but Arkham House outlived erstwhile publishers like Fantasy Press (1947-1961), Gnome Press (1948-1962), and Macabre House (1954-1979). With longevity came the legend: Arkham House had not only been the first to publish many works by Lovecraft & co., but those books, once sold out, began to demand higher prices on the used & rare book market. A cycle which still feeds collectors paying fabulous prices even today, with no end in sight.
Like Weird Tales, Arkham House was not some faceless corporate enterprise. The readership was relatively small, and intimate, especially during the first period under August Derleth’s directorship—when Derleth would often personally take and fulfill orders, answer letters, put together newsletters and journals like The Arkham Sampler (1948-1949) and The Arkham Collector (1967-1971)…and it would have been Derleth who received a token of poetic appreciation from a fan toward the enterprise he was so closely associated with:
For Judy Reber, the best of macabre verse, Cordially, August Derleth
That was the connection between fantasy fans and the director of Arkham House; that was the kind of personal touch which built the legend of Arkham House, above and beyond their catalog. It was the weird community of spooky book lovers, and the experience of being able to order those strange and weird works which were otherwise inaccessible to the average fan which Judy Reber paid tribute.
“Lines On Placing An Order With Arkham House” by Judy Reber appeared on several of Arkham House’s promotional materials from 1965 until 1970. Being ephemera, these small pamphlets and folded sheets are often overlooked by cataloguers, so the exact publication history is obscure. The poem is in the public domain (no copyright registration or renewal could be found), and was last published in Leigh Blackmore’s ‘zine Mantichore vol. 4, no. 1 (2009).
Occult readings of Lovecraft’s fiction began while he was still alive, with correspondents like William Lumley and the unnamed Salem witch descendent and “Maine wizard” expressing interest or belief in the reality of the artificial mythology and lore that Lovecraft and his contemporaries concocted. As Lovecraft put it:
[William Lumley] is firmly convinced that all our gang—you, Two-Gun Bob, Sonny Belknap , Grandpa E’ch-Pi-El, and the rest—are genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension. We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry. Indeed—Bill tells me that he has fully identified my Cthulhu and Nyarlathotep ……. So that he can tell me more about ‘em that I know myself.
Lovecraft, as an ardent materialist, always disabused those who wrote to him asking for the reality of the Necronomicon or for occult lore; while he was happy to play the game of terrible incantations and rites in fiction and in his letters, he did not wish to actually misinform or mislead anyone. The interest generation in such works did, however, present an interesting possibility:
I dont wonder that you recieve letters inquiring about the Necronomicon. You invest it with so much realism, that it fooled me among others. Until you enlightened me, I thought perhaps there was some such book or manuscript sufficiently fantastic to form the basis of fictionized allusions. Say, why dont you write it yourself? If some exclusive house would publish it in an expensive edition, and give it the proper advertising, I’ll bet you’d realize some money from it.
While neither Lovecraft or Howard pursued the idea, long after their death others acted on the idea. Two of the earliest and most prominent of these were the Necronomicon by Simon, first published by Schlangekraft in 1977 and in 1980 as an affordable mass-market paperback (which has never yet gone out of print) and in 1978 The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names edited by George Hay. These two books were both hoaxes that claimed to derive their text from a genuine manuscript; the Simon Necronomicon took as its inspiration Sumerian mythology and a dash of Aleister Crowley’s Thelema, while the Hay Necronomicon riffed off the European medieval grimoire tradition.
Of the two, the Simon book was more “serious” and aimed at fooling students of the occult, while the Hay book (with a lengthy introduction by Colin Wilson) was more fun. However, both books were embraced by burgeoning occult communities in the 1970s and 80s, were referenced by Kenneth Grant (a successor to Aleister Crowley) in his occult workbooks The Typhonian Trilogies (1972-2002), and continue to influence contemporary works of occultism such as Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason. For more on the complicated Lovecraftian occult scene, see The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms & John W. Gonce III.
Nor were they the only such works; many occult Necronomicons have proliferated over the years…and not all of them in English. Many non-English language Necronomicons are, in whole or in part, translations of the popular Simon and Hay Necronomicons, sometimes with their rituals and imagery mixed together, sometimes interpolated with original material. Other works are largely original. Two particular works from Italy are good examples to compare and contrast how the occult Necronomicon tradition functions.
Magic of Atlantis: Sauthenerom: The Real Source of the Necronomicon (1985) by Frank G. Ripel
This Work is essentially divided into two parts. The first reveals the Text “Sauthenerom” whose source is lost in the Night of Times, and the other is an essay on particular esoterical matters that are related to the Ordo Rosae Misticae (The Order of the Mystic Rose) and connected with the Current of Occult Knoweldge that reaches back 4,000 years to the end of the Stellar-Lunar Cults and the beginning of the Lunar Cults. […]
I can assert that the Sauthenerom (The Book of the Law of Death) is the Text of the Real Necronomcion (The Book of Dead Names), i.e. the Text out of which later on the Necronomicon had developed.
Frank G. Ripel, “Introduction” to Magic of Atlantis 7
Frank Giano Ripel is an Italian occultist whose works primarily derive from Aleister Crowley’s system of ceremonial magic, whose best-known practitioners are the Ordo Templi Orientalis (O.T.O.). This system of ritual magic in turn grows out of the teachings of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which in turn attempted to distill, codify, and systemize various occult practices such as the Western grimoire tradition such as The Sacred Book of Abramelin the Mage, Christian Kabbalah, and tarot (for more on which, see Eldritch Tarot (2021) by Sara Bardi).
After Aleister Crowley’s death, his last secretary Kenneth Grant sought to expand the system of Thelema through a series of books, starting with The Magical Revival (1972), which began to incorporate fictional elements—particularly the Lovecraft Mythos—into the already complicated system of occult correspondences. Other occultists picked up on this thread, and the Simon Necronomicon in particular included a table of correspondences suggesting that the Necronomicon and the Lovecraft Mythos were associated with Crowley’s teachings; Grant referred back to this in his later books, and like how the Cthulhu Mythos grew up from different authors pursuing their own writing goals and referencing one another’s work, the Lovecraftian occult began to expand. Ripel was part of that expansion.
As with many occultists and groups, the background is a little hazy. It appears that in the 1980s Ripel began self-publishing his own occult works for a relatively small and select audience; the principal volumes of these are the Sabean Trilogy which consists of three books, with the titles Magic of Atlantis, Red Magic, and Stellar Magic in English. Various translations of some of these were made in English, Spanish, and Serbian by small presses, and today several editions are available as ebooks, but the early English translations Magic of Atlantis are quite rare and it isn’t clear if the other books in the trilogy were ever translated into English, so Ripel’s influence on English-speaking Lovecraftian occultists appears to be minimal.
Ripel’s Magic of Atlantis is a sort of hybrid between Kenneth Grant’s and Simon’s approaches. The first part of the book, called the Sauthenerom, is implicitly a “received text” on the order of “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna—or at least, unlike The Book of Dzyan (1888) by Helena Blavatsky there is no suggestion that Ripel was pretending to work off of a physical manuscript he had discovered. This Necronomicon ur-text borrows rather liberally from Lovecraft, though not without its original changes:
The Old Ones Are, the Old Ones Were and the Old Ones Will Be. From the Dawn of Times, in the Primordial Chaos, in ever Centre of the Infinite called Naxyr, the Gods Were and Were-Not; They were floating in the formless Waters of Darkness, in the Void of Naxyr. […]
At the Centre of Naxyr resideth his Manifestation in the form of that Protoplasmic Chaos, that Boiling Energy; the Manifested Father who is also the Son, the Projection of the Mother.
His Name is Azathoth,the Blind God who Explodes with no End, and out of his Death, the Manifested Worlds are born; and Planets and Stars and Suns and their inhabitants. He is the One that sits on the Double Throne. He is the One that clothes Yog-Sothoth of his Mother.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 11
This mythological section borrows fairly heavily from Theosophy…too much, in that it reproduces some of the inherent racism of the “root races”:
There were divisions among the Races caused above all by climactic conditions. For example, the South Race developed the faculty of enduring the bruning Sun’s Rays through the emission of a substance which darkens the skin. In the span of Ten Generations, this factor became hereditary.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 25
References to Lovecraft’s Mythos aside, the Sauthenerom section is relatively brief (26 pages) and divided into 13 chapters with a combination of myth, cosmology, and ritual. The bulk of the book is the second section, which details the magickal practices and beliefs of the Ordo Rosae Misticae, which presents itself as a splinter of the O.T.O.; Ripel both criticizes Grant’s publications while borrowing from them—like Crowley and Simon, Ripel borrows in Lovecraft’s creations to his system, though much of the Magic of Atlantis involves “correcting” Grant’s errors:
Talking of the relation between Lovecraft’s Cult and that of Crowley, we must point out an erroneus assertion of Kenneth Grant (see The Magical Revival) that Lovecraft did not know the Work of Crowley. Lovecraft’s letters, instead, demonstrate precisely the contrary. Besides, Grant’s comparative table between the Two Cults contains considerable mistakes.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 56-57
The third part of the book is devoted to the grades of Ripel’s order, and the actual magickal operations are described in part four; these mostly involve fairly typical instructions for how to create various ritual tools and spaces, and variations of familiar Thelemic rites—in place of Crowley’s “Mass of the Phoenix,” for example, is given instructions for the “Host of Satan”:
To prepare the Host of Satan (Lucifer’s Bread of Light) various types of Blood could be used, the best is that of the Moon, that is the Menstrual Blood. One will have ot burn the Blood making cakes out of it.
Frank G. Ripel, Magic of Atlantis 179
There is little to nothing of Lovecraft in this “operational” portion of the book, and that rather reveals Magic of Atlantis for what it is: a handbook for by and for practicing Thelemic magicians working within Ripel’s particular interpretation of Crowley and Grant’s system.
The fanciful pseudo-Lovecraftian material that fronts the book ultimately gives way to almost prosaic repetition of standard Hermetic ceremonial matters in the back half; despite grand claims to have at his access ultimate secrets, at least in this book Ripel’s imagination falls far short of expectations. Would-be Lovecraftian cultists may be disappointed not to find anything as weird or grand as in the Simon and Hay Necronomicons…but actual serious-minded occultists will probably appreciate Ripel’s criticisms of Grant (provided they agree) and his efforts at magical scholasticism.
Necronomicon: Il Libro Proibito di Abdul Alhazred (2022) by Miranda Gurzo
La versione di Hay e Wilson, ad esempio, è interessante per tutta la parte introduttiva, che tesse un intricato mistero attorno alla figura di John Dee e alle sue “comunicazioni angeliche”, ma il testo vero e proprio del libro maledetto è piuttosto breve e modellato senza tropa fantasia sull’impronta dei manuali magical medievali.
Hay and Wilson’s version, for example, is interesting throughout the introductory part, which weaves an intricate mystery around the figure of John Dee and his “angelic communications”, but the actual text of the cursed book is rather short and modeled without too much imagination on the imprint of medieval magical manuals.
Where Magic of Atlantis is a book for magicians by magicians, Miranda Gurzo’s Necronomicon is plain about being a work of fiction more in the vein of the Hay Necronomicon—but to go it one better and try and produce a work of fiction that is more in keeping with the spirit and scope of the Necronomicon-as-medieval-grimoire. Rather than overly concerning itself with contemporary Lovecraftian occultism, Gurzo focused on creating something closer to what the Necronomicon in Lovecraft’s stories might have looked like, if it was a real book.
There have been a few other books with similar approaches, but most of them are ultimately prop books—works that look the part, but without a particularly coherent or interesting original text. Italian publisher Libri Prohibiti for example creates beautiful, functionally unique works of book art, but the texts of these imaginary-books-made-flesh aren’t original, being often taken from some public domain text, sometimes with alterations to reflect the theme. Efforts to actually write the Necronomicon in whole or in part tend to run up hard against a lack of effort, lack of creativity, or both. L. Sprague de Camp, for example, famously published a version of the Al Azif in 1973 that consists only of a long narrative introduction and eight pages of the same pseudo-Duriac text.
It looks the business, but you can’t actually read it.
Many other authors have tried to write pieces of the Necronomicon, as collected in the Chaosium book of the same name, but the results usually fail to meet expectations. In part, that has to do with the reputation that the Necronomicon was attributed by Lovecraft in his early fiction, and which has only grown over subsequent generations. It’s pretty much impossible to distill something sufficiently shocking, terrible, revelatory, occult, grotesque, and weird into a single book…and if you did manage that feat, it would still fail to live up to expectations, because the whole point of the Necronomicon is a book which is literally defined as being beyond your imagination. If you can pick it up and read it, how could it ever compare to that ancient, moldering tome kept under lock and key in the Miskatonic University library?
In a sense, Gurzo tries to get around this by tempering expectations.
Ma io, Abdul Alhazred, ho potuto con i miei stessi occhi scrutare i mistici caratteri delle Cronache di Nath, la cui antichita’ supera quella del nostro cosmo, e la cui origine si situa nel mondo da cui Quelli di Prima vennero in principio, che i mistici conoscono come Nath dei Tre Soli.
But I, Abdul Alhazred, was able with my own eyes to scrutinize the mystical characters of the Chronicles of Nath, whose antiquity surpasses that of our cosmos, and whose origin lies in the world from which Those who First came in the beginning, which the mystics know as Nath of the Three Suns.
Basically, the Gurzo Necronomicon is a kind of pseudo-medieval occult textbook, combining aspects of fantastical geography, cosmology, theology, metaphysics, and “functional” occultism. It is written in a pseudo-archaic style—as far as tone and format—although the actual language is contemporary Italian rather than another dialect (such as Venetian), and all the proper names (Abdul Alhazred, Shub-Niggurath, Cthulhu, etc.) are in recognizable contemporary forms. In this, it probably more closely resembles translations of actual medieval grimoires into contemporary languages than it does a genuine medieval product…but you can actually read it (or, if you don’t read Italian, translate it by hand or via an app).
If the Gurzo Necronomicon doesn’t promise the most terrible secrets of the universe, it does at least present a reasonable and readable facsimile of what a medieval occult textbook based on the Mythos might actually have looked like. It is relatively long (356 pages of text), detailed, and certainly a labor of love to gather bits and pieces of Mythos lore from across dozens of stories and try to weave them together into something like a coherent narrative. This goes beyond just Lovecraft, but borrowing from Clark Ashton Smith and other Mythos writers as well:
COmpresi allora aldila’ di ogni dubbio che quello che avevo veduto altro non era che l’Idolo dei Ciechi, il simulacro di un mostruoso Essere venuto dall’Esterno; Egli dimora nel lago sotterraneo del deserto di Chaur, e nelle tenebre tartaree e’ adorato e servito da una razza degenerata di Aihai chiamati Yorhis, i quali sono costantemente mantenuti dall’Abitatore dell’Abisso in uno stato di oblio e inconsapevolezza, cosi’ che non possano ribellarsi alla tirannia del loro Signore.
I understood then beyond any doubt that what I had seen was none other than the Idol of the Blind, the simulacrum of a monstrous Being who came from Outside; He dwells in the underground lake of the desert of Chaur, and in the Tartarean darkness he is worshiped and served by a degenerate race of Aihai called Yorhis, who are constantly kept by the Dweller of the Abyss in a state of oblivion and unawareness, so that they cannot rebel against the tyranny of their Lord.
Probably the closest equivalent in English would be Necronomicon: The Wanderings of Alhazred (2004) by Donald Tyson, which was part of a series of Necronomicon-related works of dubious merit for the new spirituality shelves at your favorite local chain bookstore. Tyson’s books are almost the definition of cheap pop-occultism, utterly unambitious and aimed at a reader that doesn’t know much of anything about either magic or the Mythos. Gurzo at least delves deep into Mythos lore, to the point where you might want to keep the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia handy to look up an obscure reference or two.
Gurzo hasn’t neglected the Lovecraftian occult elements, but the incantations, magic circles, and other instructions tend to be interspersed through the text; to give the flavor of it:
E le labbra degli stregoni, e con loro le mie, iniziarono a cantilenare le Parole proibite del Rituale Nero di Yaddith:
Like the Hay Necronomicon, the Gurzo Necronomicon is not attempting to be a complete magical system or text in the sense of the Simon Necronomicon or Ripel’s Magic of Atlantis. What it is trying to do, more than the other books, is to present a Necronomicon that is reasonably accurate to the contents of the Necronomicon as Lovecraft and his contemporaries and heirs described it, with explicit and frequent reference to the Mythos entities, places, books, and magical operations that you can read about in Mythos fiction.
Which probably won’t stop some eager cultists from trying out a few of the tongue-twisting incantations on their own. The nature of the Lovecraftian occult is to spur the imagination of practitioners, who tend to borrow from myriad sources as they explore the weird world of magick. Ripel and Gurzo are coming from different perspectives, and in different ways: Magic of Atlantis is a relatively slim hardback that was published in a single edition in limited numbers, and the main illustrations are a series of line-diagrams of the Tree of Life and poorly-reproduced black-and-white photographs; Gurzo’s Necronomicon is a fat hardback published print-on-demand with relatively more diagrams…but the images show loss of resolution, blurring and pixelization. Both are primarily products of single creators rather than corporate products, but the publishing environment has shifted vastly in the nearly 40 years between the two books.
Ripel is attempting to appeal to occultists, and Gurzo to weird literature fans—but they have ended up in practically the same place, both of them crafting new recensions in the Necronomicon occult tradition. The line between “real” occultism and fiction is blurry, and the two influence one another all the time; the Necronomicon quotes that Lovecraft came up with in “The Dunwich Horror” have been assimilated into these fictional grimoires, and some of those practices have in turn inspired new Lovecraftian fiction like Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee.
How much influence these particular works will ever have on English-language Mythos fiction or the Lovecraftian occult is hard to say; the language barrier can be difficult to pass. Plus, the market is saturated: we are in the fifth decade of Lovecraftian occult publishing, and there is no end in sight, and would-be practitioners have a lot of raw material to choose from.
My stories always feature a Black woman lead, no matter how hard history tries to erase us and our contributions. I speak to my experiences in my stories as a way to flush them out as well as show the world that we are here, we matter, we are worthy.
—Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane
Perspective in any story is more than just the race or gender of the protagonist: it is a way of looking at the world. The history of slavery in the United States, for example, looks different from the perspective of the slave than it does from the perspective of the slaver and abolitionist. The experience and the stakes are different. It leaves its mark on individuals and generations in a way that is almost inescapable, and it shapes the way people understand and pass on their own stories and histories.
Persecution is not something Lovecraft thoroughly understood or expressed in his stories. While his life featured great hardships and poverty, he and his family never experienced systemic prejudice or discrimination. In stories like “The Festival,” he alludes to the hangings at Salem Village and the quiet diaspora of witches, but the witches are not sympathetic victims, even from the perspective of their descendants. There is no rancor at the injustice done, because to Lovecraft there was no injustice: they were witches, after all. Likewise, the fate of the people of Innsmouth is not presented as a crime amounting almost to genocide akin to the forced relocation of the Native Americans, though in all particulars it certainly approaches it.
What Zin E. Rocklyn brings to her stories is not necessarily a need to counter, refute, reimagine, or even mention Lovecraft and his Mythos, but her existence and perspective as a Black woman writing weird fiction. As she puts it, when asked about whether she puts broader messages on race into her work:
By default, my presence within horror and writing horror is a message unto itself. Me showing up is message enough, so there’s no definitive way for me to divorce myself from that ongoing narrative.
—Women in Horror Month Fiction Fragments: Zin E. Rocklyn (26 Feb 2021) by Michelle R. Lane
Which is absolutely the case for her short novel Flowers for the Sea (1921). Readers familiar with Lovecraft might well identify this story, which is set in an ambiguous time and place, as a left-handed descendant of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” by way of ecological disaster fiction like “Till A’ the Seas” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft. Iraxi is one of the last survivors of a persecuted minority with rumored supernatual powers and ties to the sea, a literary cousin to the survivors of the Innsmouth diaspora in stories like “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe—but, the details aren’t quite right. There is a visceral reality to the persecution often missing from Innsmouth stories, ugly details like this one:
They called us nims. A word with hardly any meaning other than to spit upon its victim.
It morphed, much like forked tongues who spoke it, an encapsulating slure that reduced one to shreds, to the foam of the sea we feared, to nothing but the scent of a bowel movement.
—Zin E. Rocklyn, Flowers from the Sea 15
Slurs in science fiction and fantasy are not to be created lightly; too often they tend to mask real-world prejudices, and be substituted for them. Yet in this story, it serves the purpose of an introduction to the history of persecution that has brought Iraxi to this point, the beginning of the end of the pregnancy she didn’t want aboard a dying ship, hated by and hating those around her.
There is no calm, philosophical Lovecraftian indifference in this story. Anger is a major theme, sometimes ugly and sometimes righteous, but never unjustified. There is history behind that anger, long history, some of which is only hinted at…and it isn’t over. The people around her on the ship tolerate her, use her, but she is only and ever a resource to be managed, not a person to be respected…until, at last, it is too late.
Hate has its place in every life; it is a natural reaction to the pain of loss. An excess of hate can lead to terrible consequences; it is what leads to the transformation of Tommy Tucker in “The Ballad of Black Tom,” and nearly damns Maryse Boudreaux in her fight against the Ku Kluxes in Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. Through Rocklyn’s prose, we get Iraxi’s struggle with her own hatred…but if she becomes a monster, it is because the monsters around her have made her one. The people that burned down her home, killed her family, called her people names for generations, and finally forced her to carry a child she didn’t want…it was their monstrous deeds that stoked the furnace of her rage and honed her cruelty to a sharp point.
There are counter-narratives that might be considered, since we only have Iraxi’s viewpoint for the whole novel. The ship is dying, women unable to bear children, and in this context Iraxi is an ungrateful madonna, given the best food while the others slowly starve. Should she not be thankful for the life she is to give birth to? Is she an unreliable narrator, self-centered and toxic, unable to appreciate what others sacrifice for her sake? Or how her individual sacrifice is for the greater good, for the survival of all?
The problem with these counter-narratives is that they run up hard against issues of bodily autonomy. How grateful should a slave be, to bear the child of her master to increase his wealth? Why should she submit herself and her own needs and desires for the good of a people who see her as little more than a particularly stubborn breeding cow? That is the presence Rocklyn brings to the tale. The arguments against Iraxi’s perspective are ultimately ugly because what Iraxi suffers is, by and large, an extrapolation of the horrors and indignities that women, especially Black women, have suffered for centuries in the United States and the Caribbean.
While we’re seen as sexual beings, we’re rarely seen as sensual beings. We’ve been used and abused for hundreds of years for the sake of personal slavery to the advancement of science, but never as human beings who own their bodies and their sexuality. Even in contemporary thought, there is the myth of the Strong Black Woman who needs no partner, no love, and it simply isn’t true. It’s a bastardisation of a mantra that means we won’t put up with bullshit. I want my fiction to make that distinction, that we crave and deserve love and nurturing.
—Interview: Zin E. Rocklyn by Gordon B. White in Nightmare 107 (Aug 2021)
So it is with Inaxi, though her desire for love is never requited…hence the depth and intensity of her hatred. The issues of desire for love and bodily autonomy for women, especially within the context of pregnancy, are seldom made explicit in Lovecraftian fiction; stories like “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales touch on them, but Flowers for the Sea is particularly vivid not only in its microscopic emphasis on the horrors of an unwanted pregnancy, approaching splatterpunk levels of grue when the chapter arrives for the birth, but in the implications. Iraxi is not just a Black Lavinia Whateley; her experience comes out of a very distinct experience of Black Womanhood.
Which is ultimately something that sets Flowers for the Sea apart from many other “Lovecraftian” tales. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is not so much a distant ancestor as it is the raw material for a tube of Mummy brown that Rocklyn uses to paint her own distinct picture.
Harry Houdini, the great illusionist, escapist, and debunker of spiritualists was born into a Jewish family in the Austro-Hungarian empire in 1874 as Erik Weisz. In 1878, the family emigrated to the United States of America, where the family name was changed to the German spelling, and he became Erich Weiss. His career in stage magic began in 1891, under the name Harry Houdini, in homage to the great French illusionist Robert Houdin. Over thirty years later Houdini was still performing and branching out into new ventures.
After the success of his magazine College Humor, in 1922 entrepreneur J. C. Henneberger partnered with his friend J. M. Lansinger to form the Rural Publishing Corporation. Their initial product was a pulp magazine under the editorial guidance of Edwin Baird: Detective Tales. Struggling to find its place in the detective pulp field against competition like Black Mask, the firm was refinanced and the pair launched a second magazine, also under Baird’s editorial guidance in 1923: Weird Tales.
Henneberger was known to be hands-on with editorial decisions at Weird Tales, and with a noted interest in H. P. Lovecraft. However, Weird Tales also struggled to find its audience, and the first year of publication was marked by changes in the size and frequency of the magazine’s publication. The magazine was not a success, and the debt piled up.
Now long after I had inaugurated Weird Tales, I had a call by Houdini at my Chicago office; he expressed more than usual enthusiasm for the magazine, and the meeting resulted in a friendship lasting until his untimely death a few years later. He often regaled me with experiences of his that rivaled anything I had ever read in books. Several of these I published, but they were written in such a prosaic style that they evoked little comment.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
The first issue of Weird Tales has a cover date of March 1923. The Weird Tales offices were in Indianapolis, but Rural Publishing Co. was incorporated in Chicago and Baird would have his own office there. In May 1923, Houdini headlined at the State-Lake Theatre in Chicago, so he was definitely in the city at the time, and there is no reason to doubt Henneberger’s account.
The first few issues of WT could hardly have been impressive: an eclectic mix of fiction, unsigned strange-but-true filler articles, small advertisements, and indifferent art. Yet the May 1923 issue (on the stands in April), contained several small essays related to spiritualism: “Woman Receives Poems from Spirit World,” “Woman’s Spirit Is Photographed,” “Deaf and Blind Students Perform Miracles,” “Neighbors See ‘Sacred Heart’ in Girl’s Death Room”—and perhaps that caught Houdini’s attention; Houdini who had been making a name for himself by exposing fraudulent spiritualists and spirit-photographers.
Whatever the case, Houdini and Henneberger came to some kind of arrangement. The exact details are unknown; any contracts or promissory notes have not come to light. Yet in the same month it was reported in an article about Houdini:
Even now he is connected with the publishing business, Weird Tales, a magazine of 150,000 circulation, being one of his interests.
The circulation count appears to be inflated, but another account of Houdini apparently claiming a financial interest in Weird Tales occurs in a memoir of H. P. Lovecraft:
One whom he helped was Harry Houdini, the magician. I went to Boston on a weekend to see Houdini’s show. The second half of it was an exposé of spiritualist fakery and Houdini called for ten people to come up on the stage and assist. Among others I volunteered and was sitting there when various people were called by name out of the audience and were told much about themselves concerning their personal lives. I thought that this was a put-on, until my own name was called.
He said, “Your name is Harold Munn, you write under the name of H. Warner Munn and you write for Weird Tales?” I was staggered by his apparently occult knowledge, but admitted that this was so. “Well,” Houdini went on, “did you know that I was part owner of Weird Tales?” I didn’t.
“It is so. Now, do any of you remember having some friend that saw my show last week and telling them that you were coming here today?”
Each one of us did. “Those friends were asked to give me this information, as I shall ask others today to tell me about anyone that they know will be here next week and I shall surprise them then as I have surprised you this afternoon. That is one of the spiritualist tricks. It always works.”
Later I learned from Lovecraft that Houdini had indeed put money into the struggling magazine, after he had had a story, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” published there under his own name.
Houdini was a stockholder in Weird Tales before Wright took it over–and possibly afterward.
W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale75-76
Where Cook would have gotten this tidbit, if not from Lovecraft himself, is unknown; Lovecraft does not mention Houdini being a stockholder or having a financial interest in Weird Tales in any of his published letters. Henneberger never mentions Houdini investing in Weird Tales either, but in one letter he does imply that Houdini was at least a potential investor:
Another man, Harry Houdini, died in . He was in the process of paying off some half-million dollars lost on motion pictures he made. Had he lived, he would have been an active associate of Weird Tales.
Houdini had formed his own company, the Houdini Picture Association, to produce two silent films starring himself, The Man from Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), before abandoning Hollywood as unprofitable. It’s not clear if he would have had the funds to bail out Weird Tales, which was bleeding money in 1923…but Houdini had terrific name recognition that might help save the magazine. Perhaps the initial plan was to capitalize on Houdini’s association with the magazine, and later Houdini would become part-owner.
Whatever the details of the arrangement were, we know at least this much: Houdini would lend his name and reputation to the magazine for a series of articles, essays, and ghost-written stories. Presumably, Houdini would have received some pay for this, but he might also have believed he and Henneberger were retooling the magazine into something more like an outlet for Houdini’s fame and spiritualist-debunking efforts. As evidence of what this version of Weird Tales might have looked like can be seen in this full-page advertisement that appears in the opening pages of Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923), a book of illusionist material by James W. Elliott, but edited by and published via the influence of Houdini.
If this doesn’t sound a great deal like Weird Tales as fans now know it, but it does jive with some comments that Lovecraft made in his letters:
[Henneberger] spoke of a coming reoganisation to include work from the magician Houdini and the elaboration of gruesome crime material at the expense of fiction, reducing the latter to a novel and two or three short stories per issue.
He will introduce a column by the magician Houdini, and wants to cut down the fiction to one novel and two or three short stories per issue, filling the rest of the space with written-up morbid crimes of real life. . . .
Weird Tales would begin to make these changes with the introduction of the “Ask Houdini” column. In general outline the magazine greatly resembles another pulp that would be one of WT‘s short-lived competitors: Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), edited by illusionist and legendary pulp writer Walter Gibson, which only lasted five issues but included a number of stories and articles on prominent magicians such as Houdini—as well as the first publication of H. P. Lovecraft’s “Cool Air.”
Yet that version of Weird Tales never came to be.
What did happen is that in May 1924, Detective Tales changed its title to Real Detective Tales, and the magazine shifted to be closer to the first-person “true” style of the Macfadden magazines like True Story. The mounting debt and Weird Tales‘ ongoing failure was a problem; and the Houdini pieces do not appear to have been enough to save the magazine from financial difficulties. In early 1924, Baird was quietly fired as editor of Weird Tales; Henneberger offered Lovecraft the editorship. When Lovecraft declined, the editorship went to Farnsworth Wright, who was first reader of the magazine (another reader, Otis Adelbert Kline, claimed to have quietly edited the May-Jun-July 1924 “anniverary” issue).
A split occurred within Rural Publishing Co.; Lansinger got Real Detective Tales (with Baird as editor) and College Humor, and Henneberger got Weird Tales, which was reorganized under the Popular Fiction Publishing Company. Weird Tales‘ largest creditor, the Cornelius Printing Company, agreed to convert its debt into a majority share of the new company—and while Henneberger remained on paper in ownership of the company, by agreement he kept out of the management, probably to avoid the editorial conflicts and format changes he had with Baird during Weird Tales‘ turbulent first year.
These business changes meant that whatever promises were made in Chicago in 1923, Houdini’s involvement with Weird Tales would not last past the 1924 Anniversary issue, which was the last published by Rural Publishing Co. If Houdini thought he had bought a stake in it, that stake apparently ended with Rural; if Houdini thought Weird Tales was going to reformat as “the Weirdest True Stories ever written,” he had not reckoned with the new editor. Farnsworth Wright, who assumed editorship of Weird Tales and without Henneberger’s interference, guided WT in a different direction entirely. After Summer 1924, Houdini had no more direct involvement with Weird Tales.
Yet for three issues, Weird Tales published stories (“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”) and articles (“Ask Houdini”) nominally by Houdini…and those are worth investigating.
It is taken for granted that essentially all of the material that appeared under Houdini’s name in Weird Tales was not actually written by him. H. P. Lovecraft goes into quite some details in his letters about how he wrote “Under the Pyramids,” and is honest about his work as a ghostwriter for Houdini. Since Lovecraft did not make any similar confession regarding other work ascribed to Houdini at Weird Tales, he can also be ruled out of writing the rest. There must have been at least one other ghost for Houdini besides Lovecraft; possibly more than one.
For the other stories and works, we have no such direct account, and are left with speculation—but some of that speculation is interesting. So it is worth examining those most likely to have ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales
C. M. Eddy, Jr.
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
Clifford M. Eddy, Jr. was a native of Providence, Rhode Island, and an associate of H. P. Lovecraft. They had known each other since 1918, but Lovecraft only met C. M. Eddy and his wife Muriel Eddy in 1923. The young couple were hard up for cash, and Eddy wished to break into the pulp fiction game; Lovecraft assisted him in revising four stories which were published in Weird Tales: “Ashes” (Mar 1924), “The Ghost-Eater” (Apr 1924), “The Loved Dead” (May-Jun-Jul 1924), and “Deaf, Dumb, and Blind” (Apr 1925). The first three stories, perhaps coincidentally, overlapped with the three Houdini issues at Weird Tales. So we know for a fact that Eddy was writing and publishing in Weird Tales at the appropriate time.
It is also known that Eddy did ghostwriting and other work for Houdini outside of Weird Tales. In a 1963 newspaper article about Eddy, it is written:
Houdini at that time had a stable of ghost writers. Mr. Lovecraft was one of them, and before long Mr. Eddy heard from the master magician. He began preparing for publication material supplied by Houdini which appeared in print under Houdini’s name, some in magazines Houdini owned.
The great entertainer was not without a business sense, evidently. In fact, Mr. Eddy sold booklets about the stage wizard in the lobby during performances.
“I used to stay at his house in New York quite often,” Mr. Eddy recounted. “he was one of the swellest guys I ever met. A lot of people hated him because he was agianst fakes and mediums. Some accused him of being in league with the devil.”
“I used to be an investigator for him, you know,” he said. “Yes, he had them all around the country. He’d send me to interview various mediums and he’d evaluate the reports. He’d challenge them to come onto the stage and show that they weren’t fakes. Most of them never came…the others regretted it. His investigators always worked a town ahead of his show.”
George Popkin, “He Wrote of the Supernatural” in the Providence Evening Bulletin (25 Nov 1963) 37
Magazines that Eddy might have ghostwritten for include M-U-M (Magic-Unity-Might), the official organ of the Society of American Magicians during Houdini’s stint as president, although it is not clear if any works in there are attributable to Eddy. Someone selling booklets in the lobby of Houdini’s shows is also not farfetched; such enterprise was common in accounts of Houdini’s shows in the 1920s.
The claim that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators is also plausible. Houdini had many investigators that “worked” mediums ahead of time, mostly young women but also sometimes men. The accounts of one investigator were published in a series of newspaper articles in 1929, and compiled as Houdini’s “Girl Detective” The Real-life Ghost-Busting Adventures of Rose Mackenberg, and give an overview of the kind of work it was. Others of Houdini’s investigators are mentioned in biographies of his life; for example William Kalush and Larry Sloman in The Secret Life of Houdinistate that Eddy was one of Houdini’s investigators and filed many field reports (461, 502); they don’t cite their source for this information, however.
Eddy’s wife Muriel later wrote:
My husband spent some time investigating Spiritualism at Lake Pleasant, Massachusetts, for Harry Houdini, and when he came back home with much data about some of the mediums he’d met, Lovecraft came over to see us and seemed much interested in the subject.
Muriel’s anecdote suggests C. M. Eddy’s investigation would have happened circa Summer 1926. In August of that year, the New England Spiritualist Camp had its annual session at Lake Pleasant. It would not have been improbable for Houdini to have hired an investigator to have a look at the various mediums there.
While not all of C. M. Eddy’s claims with regards to working for Houdini can be verified, the claims he makes are not excessive or unbelievable. He is at least a candidate for ghosting Houdini’s stories at Weird Tales. However, there is the tricky issue of timing: both Muriel Eddy’s account and the 1963 article suggest that Eddy only began ghosting for Houdini after Lovecraft introduced the two men. Lovecraft’s letters support this timeline:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both.
Other letters from Lovecraft state that both Lovecraft and Eddy did ghostwriting work for Houdini from 1925-1926, including an aborted book titled The Cancer of Superstition…but there is nothing to indicate that Eddy had any contact with Houdini prior to Lovecraft’s introduction in Autumn 1924. This would seem to rule Eddy out as ghosting for Houdini at Weird Tales from 1923-1924.
Walter B. Gibson
ghost-writer unknown (may be either Walter Gibson or C. M. Eddy, Jr.)
On the surface, Walter B. Gibson might seem a reasonable guess for Houdini’s ghost in Weird Tales. An accomplished stage magician, an incredibly prolific pulp fiction writer, and a known associate of Houdini in the mid-1920s, Gibson is also known to have ghostwritten books for Houdini. Further, Gibson was the editor of Tales of Magic and Mystery, and his (often unsigned) articles in that pulp include “Houdini” (Dec 1927), “Houdini in Europe” (Jan 1928), “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Feb 1928), “Further Famous Escapes of Harry Houdini” (Mar 1928), and “Houdini’s Rendition of Mazeppa’s Ride” (Apr 1928), so he certainly had the knowledge and ability to ghost for Houdini in Weird Tales…but the timing isn’t right.
J. Randolph Cox outlines the problem in Man of Magic and Mystery: A Guide to the Work of Walter B. Gibson: Gibson’s first ghostwritten work for Houdini was Popular Card Tricks, which was planned as the first in a series of books on stage magic that Gibson would compile and write, to be published under Houdini’s name. However, the book was actually published after Houdini’s death (under Gibson’s own name). Thomas J. Shimeld in Walter B. Gibson and The Shadow devotes chapter 5 to Gibson’s relationship with Houdini, and in that fuller narrative confirms that Gibson did not begin ghostwriting for Houdini until a couple of months before the famous escapist’s death in 1926.
So while Gibson would appear to be a natural fit, unless some new evidence comes out revealing he began ghosting for Houdini years earlier, Gibson has to be ruled out.
I believe that Satrap Pharnabazus ghost-wrote the other two Houdini stories in W.T., did he not?
“Satrap Pharnabazus” was one of Lovecraft’s pet names for Farnsworth Wright, who had begun his career at Weird Tales as a writer, his story “The Closing Hand” appearing in the very first issue. Within the year, Wright became “first reader” for the magazine, assisting editor Edwin Baird with reading through the manuscripts sent in by prospective weird talers, alongside fellow writer-cum-reader Otis Adelbert Kline. When Rural Publishing Co. and Weird Tales were reorganized, it was Wright who ended up as editor of the re-formed magazine—and his signed fiction dropped off, naturally enough, though he would still publish a few pieces under pseudonyms (“Francis Hard”) and would quietly edit or even translate other works as necessary.
Where Lovecraft got this idea is unknown; he might have heard it directly from Wright, Houdini, Henneberger, or Baird, or indirectly as scuttlebutt from any Weird Tales author, including E. Hoffmann Price. Regrettably, Price’s reply to this letter appears non-extant, so we don’t even know if Price confirmed or denied Lovecraft’s memory. Of the proposed ghosts for Houdini, Farnsworth Wright at least was intimately involved with the magazine at exactly the correct time. Wright might be a fairly logical person for Henneberger to turn to ghost a Houdini tale. John Locke lays out the matter well:
If Henneberger was in an extreme hurry to finalize the March issue on time, then the ghost was likely to be someone in Henneberger’s immediate orbit, someone who could be dealt with in person. That creates three valid candidates: Baird, Kline, and Wright. All had published fiction; all were competent wordsmiths. Kline never hinted at it later, when keeping the secret would have been purposeless, so it’s convenient to rule him out. Baird is a possibility, especially if he accepted the assignment as part of a reduction of his editing responsibilities. In fact, in 1945 Henneberger claimed that Wright ghosted “Spirit Fakers,” but by then Henneberger had a number of specific memories of the early days of Weird Tales which are provably false, so we are reluctant to accept any of them without corroboration. If his memory was correct, it certainly would make a nice—and nicely benign—addition to Wright’s list of secrets. The argument against Wright is that if he took over editing for the April issue, he may not have had the time for the additional burden.
Without some independent corroboration, it is still speculation to say that Farnsworth Wright ghosted for Houdini at Weird Tales, but he is at least a strong candidate.
The fourth president of the Society of American Magicians, Oscar Teale had been an ally of Houdini at the Society, had done an act exposing fraudulent mediums, and became Houdini’s private secretary (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 213-217). Among his other duties, Teale is known to have been one of Houdini’s principal ghostwriters, describing their method of collaboration as:
I have never known [Houdini] to dictate more than suggestive thought, mere fragments, followed by instruction to ‘Whip it into shape‘ and the ‘other fellow’ invariably did the real composition work.
Teale also later claimed to have revised Elliott’s Last Legacy (1923) and ghostwritten A Magician Among the Spirits(1924), among many other works (Houdini!!! The Career of Erich Weiss 310-311). While no source claims Teale had any involvement with the works ghosted for Houdini for Weird Tales, as one of Houdini’s most intimate and frequent ghostwriters, who was deeply involved with working for Houdini in 1923-1924, Teale should at least be considered a possible candidate.
There is one last candidate, a writer who has been completely overlooked, someone with significant experience in writing spooky stories, someone who had been contributing to Rural publications since late 1922, and someone who was readily available to Henneberger. The author who fits that profile is Harold Ward.
The problem with ghostwriting and detecting pseudonyms is that as much as we might like to think we can identify an author’s work via their style, or some detail coded into their stories with parallels in the author’s life or other work, we do not know if they are actually the author for a given work unless there is some positive evidence—like a cashed check—that it is so. Locke’s argument for Ward as a candidate rests not on a contemporary’s claim (as Lovecraft & Henneberger for Wright), or historical association with Houdini as part of his stable of ghostwriters (as for Eddy, Gibson, and Teale), but on stylistic analysis:
There is one specific piece of evidence tha ties Ward to the second Houdini story. the solution to the mystery in “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that the deceased fiancé, a Chicago man, had an identical twin brother in Wyoming who his betrothed had never seen. The twin “was slowly dying of consumption and had gone west to work on a ranch in hope that the high altitude would help him.” As part of an insurance swindle, he throws his lot in with the charlatan. By smearing his face with phoshorescent paint, he passes for his ghostly brother at the séance. Harold Ward was not a charlatan nor did he have a twin brother, but for three different periods he traveled west, to South Dakota as a tot for his mother’s health, and twice to Colorado for his own. It’s natural that in fleshing out Houdini’s story ideas he would have drawn on his own past for inspiration; likewise, it’s improbable that Wright, or one of the other candidates, would have picked a plot device so particular to Ward’s life.
The problem is, by similar arguments one may as easily paint H. P. Lovecraft as the hidden author of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover”; after all, Lovecraft’s cousin Phillips Gamwell had gone west (to Colorado, not Wyoming) while suffering for tuberculosis in hopes that the high altitude might help him, and in his later story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward an identical twin ancestor returns from the dead to fool the living into believing he is his own lineal descendant. Similar cases could probably be made for nearly any Weird Tales writer of the period; there is no “smoking gun” in “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” or “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” that can tie those stories to any particular writer to the exclusion of all others.
Basing any analysis on stylistic details of the plot assumes they are the creation of the ghost rather than Houdini, and in fact we know nothing of how much detail Houdini went into in giving the outline and solution of the story, if at all. It is impossible to determine who the ghost is from the style or details of the works themselves, because we have no idea where Houdini ends and the ghost begins. Perhaps a mathematician could perform a rigorous stylometric analysis and determine that “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” bears a statistically likely similarity to the work of Harold Ward of the period, but until that happens Occam’s razor suggests that the stylistic detail Locke noted may well be coincidental rather than evidentiary.
For all the candidates addressed so far, emphasis has been placed on their familiarity or association with Houdini and Weird Tales, but in point of fact the pieces ghostwritten for Houdini in WT did not require in-depth personal knowledge of the illusionist to write, nor did the individual need have been intimately associated with the magazine—although that would certainly help. It is not even clear how many ghostwriters were involved, beyond Lovecraft—for all we know each story and piece may have been ghosted by different writers. To better understand the role of Houdini’s ghosts in Weird Tales, it is best to look at the ghosted works.
Ask Houdini (Mar, Apr, May-Jun-Jul 1924)
The announcement of a new feature was made in the March 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Write-in columns asking for expertise or advice had been popular in newspapers for years, and pulps like Adventure and Wonder Stories would make a point of having a “panel of experts” to answer readers’ questions; it was a good way both to fill column inches and encourage reader engagement. After all, if you wrote into the magazine, you would probably want to pick up the next issue to read the answer to your question.
Weird Tales had already tried a letter column called “The Cauldron” in the Jun , Jul-Aug, Sep, and Oct 1923 issues where readers wrote in on their “true strange” tales and encounters, “conducted” by Preston Langley Hickey. The final entry noted that: “no more manuscripts dealing with ghosts or any phase of spiritualism will be considered, unless they are of unusual merit.” Whether this was any reflection of Houdini’s influence at Weird Tales is unclear, but if “The Cauldron” attracted enough readers to justify its page space, certainly “Ask Houdini” could do better. Houdini had already done something like this in “Houdini’s Answers on Psychic Phenomena” (Washington Times, 23 Aug 1922) and other similar articles, and the Weird Tales feature would be very similar.
In the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, seven letters were answered in the “Ask Houdini” column; in the Anniversary issue, which is really three issues in one, sixteen. It is an open question as to how many of these letters might have been authentic, and whether Houdini actually answered any of them or if they were ghostwritten.
The May-Jun-Jul 1924 issue, in particular, includes a couple of very long letters which recount some of Houdini’s deeds and which are virtually small tales in and of themselves. It is a dirty but open secret that many magazine and comic book letter columns might be fabricated in whole or in part, since the whole point is to serve the needs of the magazine. Weird Tales was not, as far as is known, generally in the practice of faking letters to the editor, though Hickey no doubt revised and re-wrote some submissions for “The Cauldron”…but there is always the possibility, and these longer letters at least seem suspicious, especially as they seem very different, editorially, from how letters were handled by Weird Tales in “The Eyrie,” the usual letter column.
“Houdini’s” replies appear to be overall accurate to his genuine beliefs with regards to spiritualism and psychic phenomenon, repeating well-known points of view that jive with (or might have been gleaned from) dozens of newspaper articles, or even Houdini’s 1924 book A Magician Among the Spirits—which is promoted a little among “Houdini’s” answers, as might be expected. There is little to nothing given away in terms of details of stage magic, but that is not unusual for Houdini at this point either.
A close reading of the answers reveals no detail that only Houdini could have known at the time; while it is possible Houdini whipped out these brief replies on his own, they could also have been fairly easily put together by a competent ghostwriter with access to a copy of Houdini’s latest book. Houdini is known to have gifted at least one copy to a Weird Tales author: H. P. Lovecraft’s library included a copy of A Magician Among the Spirits that bears the inscription:
To my friend Howard Lovecraft, Best Wishes, Houdini. “My brain is the key that sets me free.”
“The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” (Mar, Apr 1924)
Weird Tales has never been devoted solely to fantasy and horror fiction. Although never a main staple of the magazine, science fiction and weird crime stories were important parts of the Weird Tales offerings to readers, and at different times the magazine would compete with detective pulps, science fiction pulps, and the weird terror or “shudder” pulps. Regular readers would not necessarily be surprised or disappointed if they picked up an issue containing a story of Jules de Grandin, Seabury Quinn’s popular occult detective, and it turned out that any apparent supernatural element was only a gang of criminals with a very weird theme or racket—like most episodes of Scooby Doo. The mystery and weirdness were enticement enough for most.
This is important because “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” is fundamentally a different kind of story for Weird Tales. Told from the first-person perspective of Houdini relating an actual adventure he had supposedly undergone many years before, Houdini is adamant from the outset that there is no supernatural element to the tale, that it was always a gang of criminals using phony séances for a blackmail scheme. The reader knows, too, that Houdini must survive relatively intact because he is telling the story. So the narrative tension in the tale lies not in the mystery of what is going on, exactly, but in how Houdini manages to get himself out of this one.
For a competent pulp writer, this is a premise that could quickly become a formula, like William Hope Hodgson’s occult detective Carnacki relaying the details of each successful case after dinner to a handful of selected guests. The skill of the ghostwriter in this story is less in the plot than in some of the incidental details. John Locke notes:
“Spirit Fakers” catches Houdini on one of his European tours. He is approached by “Countess D—,” who is being blakcmailed by fake mediums on account of her late father, “Count D—,” who was known to kidnap women and girls and imprison them in “Castle D—” in Transylvania. Obviously, the details are meant to invoke Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
While not every detail in the story jives with Stoker’s novel, there are more little hints in the story that suggest Locke is correct in that the ghostwriter took inspiration from Dracula. The way Houdini scales the walls of the castle is reminiscent of Count Dracula’s method as described by Jonathan Harker, for example, and like Dracula, the Countess D— drives her own coach to bring Houdini to the castle, which is perched on a cliff above a river as it is in the novel.
The Houdini material is carefully accurate in many respects: the use of trumpets by fake mediums, for example, and the reference to Houdini’s swimming ability as featured in the film Terror Island (1920). However, when it comes time to actually explain how Houdini makes some of his escapes, the story is exasperatingly vague—as, no doubt, the escapist was in real life. Whoever wrote the story must have had a decent grasp of Houdini’s act and some of his history (or at least, propaganda), but there is little real narrative tension. While it is a competently written story, the lack of tension or artistic description are weaknesses that make it almost forgettable. The most memorable part of it is a bit of speculation tacked on to the end of the narrative, suggesting that one of the villains was a Russian…no less than the “mad monk” Rasputin.
Weirdly enough, the detail of Rasputin’s involvement in the plot probably originated with Houdini himself. In some of his anti-spiritualist materials, Houdini makes the charge that Rasputin was a spirit-faker in the same mold as those frauds that Houdini exposed conducting séances. For example:
Rasputin in Error
[…] There is no doubt in my mind that Rasputin was the direct cause of the fall of Russia. He was a medium and claimed he could bring back any one of the Biblical characters. He held the Czar and more particularly the Czarina in his clutches, and it was through his mediumistic work that he called down vengeance on his own head.
One of the interesting details of the story is that when Houdini is handcuffed, the locks were plugged to prevent their easy picking. This was an actual detail in a contest between Houdini and another weird fictioneer, William Hope Hodgson, who shackled Houdini as part of a contest early in his career (see “Hodgson versus Houdini.”)
For reasons unknown, “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” was serialized in two parts, the first published in the March 1924 issue and the second in the April 1924 issue, where it was competing with another Houdini piece “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” Locke surmises this is because the ghostwriter did not finish the tale in time to be printed complete in a single issue (The Thing’s Incredible 139). The March ’24 issue includes no notice as to the contents of the next issue, so it’s impossible to say whether the appearance of the two Houdini pieces in the same issue was intentional or driven by editorial necessity.
“The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” (Apr 1924)
The shortest and most direct of the three Houdini narratives in Weird Tales, when compared to “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” barely qualifies as an anecdote. Published in the April 1924 issue of Weird Tales, the best that can be said of the story is that it is brief and to the point. The writing lacks any atmosphere or fine description, and whatever tension or drama there is in the longer tales is entirely absent here; Houdini knows the false medium’s game from the start, and the use of a twin brother and insurance fraud for the twist ending are such especially pulpish touches even the writer lampshades it.
While the style of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” may not point to any specific writer, the extremely different style between the two stories suggests that this might be the work of a different ghost writer than the one who wrote “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt.” If this was the case, the two different ghosts were still working from the same general assignment: both tales are first-person accounts of Houdini, with the same anti-false medium message. Houdini may well have provided the kernel of the tale, for the details on how the apparition entered the false room seem plausible enough to how such a scam might have worked.
The weirdest part of “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” is that despite its brevity, it was the cover story for that issue of Weird Tales—and that in itself says something about the shifting editorial focus that Houdini’s involvement brought to the magazine. Instead of focusing on something salacious or outré to draw readers to one of the more notable stories or novellas in the magazine, it focused on pushing the Houdini connection…and for a story which is fairly weak, and easily overshadowed by H. P. Lovecraft’s “The White Ape” (“Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”) and C. M. Eddy, Jr.’s “The Ghost-Eater.”
Given that it takes time for an artist to get an assignment, make a preliminary sketch for approval, do the painting, ship it in, and have it approved and laid out for cover art, it is possible that the cover was ordered and delivered before “Hoax” was completed—and that there was no time to mock up another cover, so “Hoax” had to be rushed to print as-is. This would not be the normal practice at Weird Tales, but the magazine was under unusual stress during this period, and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” does feel like a tale a skilled ghostwriter could have done more with unless they were severely pressed for time.
“Under the Pyramids” (May-Jun-Jul 1924)
However, one day he unfolded one astounding story of a trip to Egypt that I knew only a Lovecraft or a Clark Ashton Smith could do justice to. Lovecraft did a masterful job on the outline and details I sent him, but asked not to have his name associated with publication. This pleased Houdini, who received full credit for Lovecraft’s work.
J.C. Henneberger to Robert A. W. Lowndes, Magazine of Horror (May 1969) 117
In 1910, Houdini and his wife passed through the Suez Canal on their way to Australia; in 1922, the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in the Valley of the Kings set off a wave of Egyptomania throughout the Western world. Weird Tales embraced this with articles on Tut’s tomb and ancient Egypt, and more credulous filler like “Reads Story of Mankind on Egyptian Coffins,” “Mummies Made by Electricity,” and “Author Sues ‘Egyptian Spook'” as well as stories like “Osiris” by Adam Hull Shirk (WT Jun 1923). The Old Testament tales of Moses’ contest with Pharaoh’s magicians lent a mystique of ancient occult heritage to the country and its monuments, one which occultists, illusionists, and weird fiction writers were all able to exploit at times. Houdini in Egypt was a very solid promise.
Yes, Child, Weird Tales is certainly shovin’ a lot of work at your aged Grandsire! Entire new job–to rewrite a strange narrative which the magician Houdini related orally to Henneberger; a narrative to be amplified and formulated, and to appear as a collaborated product–“By Houdini and H. P. Lovcraft.” Henneberger demanded a telegraphed reply as to whether or not I’d accept the job, and promises INSTANT PAY on delivery! I wired him an affirmative, and am now at work familiarising myself with the geographical details of the Cairo-Gizeh locality where the alleged adventure is set–especially with the singular subterranean place betwixt the Sphinx and the second pyramid known as “Campbell’s Tomb.”
It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab. In accordance with custom, the natives decided to fight it out that night on the top of the Great Pyramid; and Houdini’s guide, knowing of the magician’s interest in exotic oddities, invited him to go along with his party of seconds and supporters. Houdini did, and saw a tame fistic encounter followed by an equally mechanical reconciliation. There was something off-colour and rehearsed about it all, and the wizard was hardly surprised when suddenly the frame-up was revealed, and he found himself bound and gagged by the two Arabs who had faked the combat. It had all been prearranged–the natives had heard of him as a mighty wizard of the West, and were determined to test his powers in a land where wizards once ruled supreme. Without ceremony they took him to an aperture in the roof of the Temple of the Pharaoh’s (Campbell’s Tomb) where a sheer drop of fifty-three feet brings one to the floor of the nighted crypt which has but one normal entrance–a winding passage very far from this well-like opening. Producing a long rope, they lowered him into this abode of darkness and death and left him there without means of ascent–bound and gagged amidst the kingly dead, and ignorant of how to find the real exit. Hours later he staggered out of that real exit, free, yet shaken to the core with some hideous experience about which he hesitates to talk. It will be my job to invent that incident, and give it my most macabre touches. As yet, I don’t know how far I can go, since from a specimen Houdini story which Henneberger sent me I judge that the magician tries to pass off these Munchausens as real adventures. He’s supremely egotistical, as one can see at a glance. But in any case, I guess I can weave in some pretty shocking things…unsuspected lower caverns, a burning light amidst the balsam’d dead, or a terrible fate for the Arab guides who sought to frighten Our Hero. Maybe they can rig up as mummies to scare Houdini, and as such enter the crypt themselves…afterward being found dead with clawlike marks abut their throats which could not possibly have been made by the hands of Houdini. The more latitude Houdini allows me, the better yarn I can evolve–I’m asking Henneberger to get me as much as possible from the versatile showman.
Weird Tales typically only paid 1/2 cent or 1 cent per word for a story, and even then they only paid on publication. Henneberger’s offer (apparently $100 in advance and $100 on acceptance) was at the upper end of rates (the published story is about ~10,900 words, so it works out to almost 2 cents a word), but now Lovecraft wouldn’t have to wait months for a check. The promise of swift payment pushed Lovecraft into uncharacteristically swift action when it came to writing the story.
Campbell’s Tomb (now numbered G 9500) is a destroyed mastaba on the Giza plateau, between the Sphinx and the Khafre Pyramid. The underground chambers were excavated in the 19th century and provided the basis for claims of underground temples, and much other speculation besides. Working from the outline and details Henneberger had sent him, Lovecraft began to research and plan:
I’m hearin’ damn near every day from Henneberger–the owner of the outfit–&just had a special delivery order to collaborate on an Egyptian horror with this bimbo Houdini. It seems this boob was (as he relates) thrown into an antient subterraneous temple at Gizeh (whose location corresponds with the so-called “Campbell’s Tomb” (not Paul J.’s) betwixt the Sphinx & 2nd pyramid) by two treacherous Arab guides–all bound & gagged as on the circuit–(him, not the guides) & left to get out as best he might. Now Henneberger (who is beginning to do some personal directing over Bairdies’ head) wants me to put this into vivid narrative form–it having merely ben told orally by Hoodie. I’ve shot back a query as to how much sheer imagination Houdini’ll stand for–since I gotta idea he tries to put over his Munchausens as straight dope, in which he figures most heroically. But if Henny & Hoodie give me a free hand–then b’gawd I’ll pull a knockout! I’ll have them guides dress up as mummies to scare the bound Houdini–yet have Hoody escape without encountering ‘em. And then, when Hoodie takes the police to the scene, I’ll have the guides found dead–strangled–chok’d lifeless in that antient necropolis of the regal stiffs–with marks of claws on their throats…claws …claws…principal & subordinate clauses…which could not by any stretch of the imagination belong either to their own hands or to the hands of Houdini!!! Brrr…I hope them guys give me leave to plaster it on as it should be plastered! Henny says that Houdini wants to get in touch with me about some books or other when he gets back from a lecture tour.
Lovecraft’s initial elaboration of the plot depended on taking Houdini’s original anecdote as fairly accurate—even though the weird fiction writer was already determined that Houdini was exaggerating the incident like Baron Munchausen. Delvings into Egyptology, however, brought Lovecraft to one inescapable conclusion:
My Egyptian research at the library proved indubitably that Houdini’s story is all a fake, and that there is no great sunken temples on the Gizeh pyramid-plateau. That means that I must invent some unknown sunken temple–at the same time adhering to that literal verisimilitude on which Henneberger insists. It’s a tough job–and the result will be just as commercial as you claim your Desert Lich tale is….
“The Desert Lich” was advertised as “a necrophilic tale,” set in the Middle East, and eventually published in Weird Tales Nov 1924 issue. Lovecraft rushed to finish the written manuscript and type it up by the deadline…because he had some important business in New York. According to one source, he may have stopped to visit the Eddy’s before leaving Providence, where he had lived almost all his life:
He apologized for not offering us the typing job (he knew we could use the money, bringing up three children) and explained that his hen-scratching and many changed paragraphs, etc. would have been terribly difficult for us to decipher. There was a strange look in his eyes, usually so bright and full of compassion. […]
“I am going to try my luck in the big city,” he said, almost wearily. “I have lived with my two aunts so long, and the change will be good for them, too. I will take the manuscript personally to Harry Houdini and get his approval; then it must go speedily to the editor of Weird Tales… to meet the deadline. This artist is waiting to draw the cover design from the story. I twill be featured in the magazine, you know.”
Lovecraft makes no reference in his letters to any intent to visit Houdini in New York to show him the typescript. However, this may be because he had an unfortunate incident on the way to New York that precluded him from showing Houdini the typescript:
He was perturbed, however, because he had a “deadline” to meet–he showed us a freshly-typed manuscript which he had “ghost-written” for no less a personality than the late Harry Houdini, a weird experience of the master magician’s in far-off Egypt, scheduled to appear in a forthcoming issue of Weird Tales. He told us he hoped in the excitement of leaving Providence on an early morning train,he wouldn’t forget and leave the manuscript behind! It was imperative that the manuscript reach the editor by a certain time. Alas–for well-laid plans of mice and men! Taking a “cat nap” while waiting for his train in Providence’s Union Station in the “wee sma’ hours,” the worst happened–the manuscript was lost! The first we knew of it was when a small, frantic statement of its loss appeared in the next morning’s Providence Journal’s Lost and Found column–offering a substantial reward for its return. The manuscript was never found, but fortunately, seeming to have a sixth sense in such matters, Lovecraft had brought the original pen-and-ink copy of the manuscript to New York, and a public stenographer made quick work of it.
The advertisement in “Lost and Found” is real, and read:
MANUSCRIPT–Lost, title of story, “Under the Pyramids,” Sunday afternoon, in or about Union Station. Finder please send to H. P. Lovecraft, 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, New York.
259 Parkside Ave. was the address of Sonia H. Greene, Lovecraft’s intended bride. However, Muriel Eddy was incorrect about who re-typed the story, as Lovecraft picks up the story:
Being obliged to get some typing done instantly, we finished the evening at the only public stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtained the use of a Royal machine for three hours. S.H. dictated whilst I typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall constantly use in future, since my partner expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness so far as her share of the toil is concerned. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to read the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involved interlined!
Lovecraft gives a fuller description of the rush and difficulties that befell the combination of trying to get the manuscript typed and the marriage off without a hitch:
Monday morning all three Parkside habitants rose early and were out–Grandpa on a dual mission in which the traditional felicity of approaching matrimony was considerably alloyed by a heavy worry of wholly unconnected nature. What worry, you ask? I’ll shed light…and impart the sad news that I LOST, just before taking the N.Y. train, the entire typed manuscript of my Houdini story, whose triumphant conclusion I had so clithely announced to you! My gawd! Think of it! I had sat up all Saturday-Sunday night to get the rush typing done…andnow all the fruits thereof were gone! It remained, then, for me to get the thing retyped somehow, and mail it to Weird Tales at the earliest second possible….a grisly skeleton at the feast. Thus on my wedding more I hasted to the Reading Lamp office, where Miss Tucker was damn generous in letting me use the whole stenographick force in one mad effort to replace the lost text. No use–before it was half done the hour for more momentous steps had arriven, and I had met the bride-elect in the final license-ring rush….to say nothing of a good Italian dinner somewhere in thirty-somethingth street! […]
Being obliged to get that damned Houdini manuscript done instanter, we finished the evening at the only publick stenographer’s office in town which was then open–that at the Hotel Vendig, where for a dollar we obtain’d the use of a Royal machine for three hours. Grandma dictated whilst Grandpa typed–a marvellous way of speeding up copying, and one which I shall frequently employ in the future, since my spouse expresses a willingness amounting to eagerness as far as her share of the toil is concern’d. She has the absolutely unique gift of being able to decipher the careless scrawl of my rough manuscripts–no matter how cryptically and involvedly interlined!
In her own memoir of their marriage, Sonia noted drolly:
It was not “a public stenographer” who copied H. P.’s hand-written notes for the Houdini manuscript. It was I alone who was able to read these erased and crossed-out notes. I read them slowly to him while H.P. pounded them out on a borrowed typewriter, borrowed from the hotel in Philadelphia where we spent the first day and night copying that precious manuscript which had to meet the printer’s deadline. When the manuscript was finished we were too tired and exhausted for honey-mooning or anything else. But I wouldn’t and didn’t let Howard down. The manuscript reached the publisher in time.
Frank Belknap Long, who heard the story from Lovecraft, said “I have no reason to question the authenticity of Sonia’s account” (Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 115). If the idea of reading off your husband’s crabby handwriting while he pecks away at a rented typewriter for several hours doesn’t exactly sound like a romantic honeymoon, Sonia declared that Lovecraft did make one particular grand gesture before they went to the church for the ceremony:
The only money he ever spent on me that he had earned was that which he received for the lost Houdini manuscript which he inadvertently left behind while waiting at the station for the train which was to take him to New York and to me the night before we were married. When I insisted that only half the amount be spent for a wedding ring, his own generosity overcame him and he insisted the future Mrs. Howard Phillips Lovecraft must have the finest wedding ring with diamonds all around it even if it took all of the proceeds of that first well-paid story.
The story that was sent off was in the first-person and starred Houdini, but otherwise was considerably different from both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover.” The Houdini of those stories had been intelligent, honorable, and resourceful, but Lovecraft’s Houdini in the May-Jun-Jul 1924 triple-sized anniversary issue was also erudite, imaginative, and profoundly more detailed in describing both when and where he was. If the other ghosts had successfully avoided sounding like anyone in particular and carefully repeated Houdini’s stock assertions against spiritualism, Lovecraft’s Houdini sounds very much like Lovecraft. In discussing the liberties he had taken with Houdini’s anecdote, Lovecraft wrote:
BOY, that Houdini job! It strained me to the limit, & I didn’t get it off till after we got back from Philly. I went the limit in descriptive realism in the first part, then when I buckled down to the under-the-pyramid stuff I let myself loose & coughed up some of the most nameless, slithering, unmentionable HORROR that ever stalked cloven-hooved through the tenebrous & necrophagous abysses of elder night. To square it with the character of a popular showman, I tacked on the “it-was-all-a-dream” bromide–& we’ll see what Houdini thinks of it. I have an idea Henny will have to stand for it, because it came in so late that there won’t be a damn second to change it–and it’s already announced.
Henneberger—or at least Otis Adelbert Kline, who claimed to have compiled the issue while the split at Rural Publishing Co. was going on—did have to accept it, albeit with a few changes. Lovecraft’s original title of “Under the Pyramids” was changed to “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” an editorial decision that highlighted Houdini’s escapist skills, and the byline read simply “by Houdini” rather than “by Houdini and Lovecraft.” Lovecraft addressed this point in another letter:
As to literary stuff–Henneberger made a special trip to Murfreesboro, Tennesse to show my new story to Houdini, and the latter took to it marvelously–writing me a note at once, which I answered at his New York address, 278 West 113th St. […] The Houdini story may appear without my name, for Henny is so dull that he doesn’t see how a collaborated work can be written in the first person–he expected third, and indulged in several saline tears because I didn’t write it thus!
Henneberger’s reasoning does not really work; Weird Tales‘ competitor Ghost Stories ran many supposedly-true stories of the supernatural where the individual witness was nominally “paired” with a professional writer, and since the stories were told in confessional style they were almost always in the first person. However, giving Houdini the sole byline kept the story in a series with the previous ones, though few readers were likely fooled by the lack of Lovecraft’s name; the stylistic differences between the three stories are vast, and Lovecraft’s fantastic “dream sequence” utterly unlike anything most Weird Tales writers could produce.
The story also has the distinction of being the first Lovecraft story set in Africa (though “Arthur Jermyn” references the Congo, the only other story actually set in Africa is “Winged Death” (1934) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft). Lovecraft’s depiction of the indigenous Egyptians was fairly typical of Colonialist attitudes during the period, when Egypt was occupied by British forces, and the Egyptians are often depicted as dirty, conniving, violent, superstitious, and unscrupulous. It is very much a representation of the Oriental stereotypes and themes that would lead Farnsworth Wright to spin off Oriental Stories magazine from Weird Tales in 1930.
“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was received positively enough, and Lovecraft was happy enough to be promptly paid. While he never publicly claimed authorship, Lovecraft was not averse to letting his friends know he had ghosted the story:
Did you see the stout, so-called “Anniversary Number” of Weird Tales with my “Hypnos” & my development of the Houdini theme? In the latter all the writing is my own, & the second or fictional part wholly of my own invention. Houdini, whom I met here last April, averred that he liked the tale very much.
While only three Houdini stories were published in Weird Tales, there is an anecdote about a fourth story that was written for the pulp magazine at about that time, but which was never published:
I remember Mr. Eddy’s painstaking revision of Houdini’s “Thoughts and Feelings of a Head Cut Off”…an experience which the master magician had undergone in his youth. Harry Houdini said in his story that somewhere in his ravels he came across an ancient superstition that if a head was severed quickly and unexpectedly from a body, the brain in the head kept on thinking for several seconds!
According to Harry, the natives of Aden-Aden were eager to test this theory, and when he visited that remote island, they ganged up on him and almost succeeded in amputating his head from his body. They must have been anxious to hear what the brain of a magician would think of, after it was separated from the body!
I am quite sure this story was never offered for sale by Harry Houdini, as it lacked the ring of veracity…perhaps it was somewhat exaggerated! When we told H.P.L. about it, he exclaimed, “Oh, what I could have done with that story, but perhaps Houdini wouldn’t have liked it if I’d changed it too much. I took a lot of liberties with his ‘Pharaoh’ story and he seemed satisfied, but this one!” And a far-away look was in his eyes…
It is not clear where “Aden-Aden” refers to, although the reference to “remote island” and “natives” suggests the South Pacific, which Houdini visited or at least passed through on his trips to and from Australia. In “Daring Exploits of Houdini” (Tales of Magic and Mystery Feb 1928), Walter B. Gibson accounts a feat of escapology that Houdini performed in the Fiji Islands, which may have partially inspired this anecdote. The idea of being overwhelmed by the “locals” is a common element in the plots of both “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt” and “Under the Pyramids” as well. In all, it sounds very much like an anecdote for one of Houdini’s Weird Tales.
No manuscript has yet emerged with the story, and there is no other evidence to date when it was written. Possibly Houdini engaged Eddy to ghostwrite it shortly after Lovecraft introduced the two men in early 1924, but before the changes had been made at Weird Tales which ended Houdini’s involvement with the magazine. It is hard to see what market Houdini may otherwise have been aiming at with such a tale.
Houdini & Lovecraft (1924-1925)
The acquisition of Houdini ought to be a great selling asset, for his fame and ability in his spectacular line are vast and indisputable. I am not much of a vaudeville follower, but it happens that I saw him at the old Keith’s Theatre here nearly a quarter of a century ago it must have been at the very outset of his career, for he was not then especially well known. Since then it interested me to hear that he comes from Appleton, Wisconsin, the home town of my learned young friend Alfred Galpin, whom I mentioned earlier in this epistle. I did not know that he writes, or that he possessed such a notable library as you describe. Certainly, it will afford me unmeasured delight to meet this library and its versatile owner—a thing the more probable because, although not much given to long trips, it is very likely that I shall live in New York after the coming spring. I suppose his articles naturally would have the imperfect background you mention, because he has been mainly accustomed to expressing his personality in different ways. I can tell better after seeing the one in the March issue, perhaps Houdini furnishes an instance of the condition I mentioned before—the creator of genius who needs a re-writer to give his recorded work the form which may perfectly express its spirit.
H. P. Lovecraft to J. C. Henneberger, 2 Feb 1924, Wikisource
While Lovecraft’s relationship with original Weird Tales editor Edwin Baird was cordial, it was J. C. Henneberger who recognized the writer’s talent and sought to capitalize on it, both by offering Lovecraft the Houdini ghostwriting job and by offering an editorial position at Weird Tales—a position which Lovecraft declined, after consideration, both because it would mean relocation to Chicago and probably because of Henneberger’s shaky finances. As it was, while Henneberger’s plans for Weird Tales never quite worked out as he had hoped, one result of them was to put Lovecraft and Houdini in contact with one another.
Lovecraft and Houdini were at this time (Spring 1924) both living in New York City, although Houdini regularly traveled about on his business. According to Lovecraft, they finally met in April of that year (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill70). Nothing came of this immediately, though Houdini likely realized Lovecraft’s value as a ghostwriter, and Lovecraft recognized Houdini’s value as a client, and their paths crossed again in June of that year:
I shall try to see the cinema you mention–though I saw the original play “Outward Bound” in Nieuw-Amsterdam in June, 1924, in the company of two individuals no less distinguished than the late Houdini and the late (so far as ownership of Weird Tales is concerned) get-rich-quick Henneberger, who were then collaborating on the details of a column run (or signed) by the celebrated conjuror. I recall the performance especially well because Houdini, conversing before the rise of the curtain, aired what is said to have been a favourite parlous trick of his–apparently pulling off his own left thumb and snapping it back after it had seemed to be away from its stump for as great a distance as an inch–or perhaps two. The whole impromptu setting, and the fact that the whole thing was in the very next seat nor four feet from my eyes, made the effect highly impressive. I wasn’t prying enough to beg an explanation, but logic seems to suggest that the cardinal principle was the snapping of some dark strip of material down and back to create an apparent gap between the base and tip of thumb. But it was damn clever–an absolulely perfect illusion, so far as my aged eyes were concerned.
This was Houdini’s infamous “Thumb Racket,” and video survives of the performance. Such social outings were no doubt rare, however, as Houdini was busy and Lovecraft struggled to find a job in New York to help financially support his marriage:
On this day I received a letter from Houdini–who was playing at the Albee and stopping at the Crown–offering to assist me in finding a position on his return to N.Y. I had given Eddy a letter of introduction to him, and the two had had some very exhaustive discussions, during which the magician expressed much eagerness to be of assistance to us both. I enclose the letter–which I answered, and to which I have just received a reply, asking me to telephone Houdini next Sunday or Monday, when he will be here before leaving for a vaudeville tour of the Pacific Coast. […] Did I say that Houdini has written, promising to find something for me? Probably I did–but I might as well transcribe in toto the note I received yesterday. (Monday)
It was a magnanimous gesture, but it came to naught:
Tuesday the 14th I read my principal book on colonial houses, & in the afternoon went to interview the man to whom Houdini had given me a letter of introduction–Brett Page, head of a newspaper syndicate service whose office is at the corner of Broadway & 58th St. […] He advised me to ask Houdini for an introduction to a book publisher–which I shall do when my nerves permit me to indite a coherent epistle.
While Lovecraft does not appear to have done any work for Houdini in 1924, it appears Houdini found work for his friend C. M. Eddy, Jr.; what exactly Eddy did for Houdini is unclear, but it apparently involved both ghostwriting and investigative work. Lovecraft and Houdini apparently kept in touch, either by mail or by occasional phone call, and possibly through mutual contacts like Eddy. In January 1925, Houdini played at the Hippodrome in New York, and invited the Lovecrafts:
In the morning I received telephone calls, & telephoned Houdini about some Hippodrome seats which he had offered me for his current performance–obtaining fine places for Thursday night. […] In the evening I joined [Sonia H. Lovecraft] at the Hippodrome–a pleasantly immense house–& saw Houdini go through the same tricks he shewed in Providence about 1898.
It’s not clear if the Lovecrafts arrived on time, because Lovecraft later stated he had never seen an entire Houdini show (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.501). While no account of the show survives in Howard’s letters, Frank Belknap Long recalled:
At Houdini’s invitation Howard arrived at the long-vanished New York Hippodrome when he was giving one of his peak performances. An hour or so before the curtain went up, the master magician slipped quietly into the chair adjacent to the one HPL occupied, introduced himself, and began to converse.
And as he talked, Howard told me the following day, he had the strange illusion,s everal times repeated, that Houdini was not there at all. Only his voice seemed to come from some region immeasurably remote, and Howard never once glanced sideways to dispel the illusion; to hae done so would have gone contrary to the stern attitude he always took about succumbing to any kind of silly credulity that could be dismissed as meaningless if one took the trouble to analyze it. […] Before the time arrived when Houdini’s presence was required backstage, they had discussed a number of things, including the splendid job Howard had done in “revising and expanding” Imprisoned with the Pharaohs (not once did Houdini mention ghost-writing), what an exceptionally far-sighted businessman Henneberger was, the serious disagreements he had had with Baird, and why it was just possible that a new editor might soon be at the helm of Weird Tales. […]
The performance which Howard witnessed that night greatly impressed him. Houdini had appeared on the stage manacled from head to toe, descended into a towering water tank, and emerged five minutes later dripping wet, holding one padlock aloft in his hand as a symbol of triumph.
Throughout 1925 Lovecraft and his wife Sonia would face a number of financial and personal difficulties. These experiences left their mark, and Lovecraft would write stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He” that spoke to his disenchantment with New York. Yet he was also keen on New York’s history and the opportunities for fellowship it allowed with his literary-minded friends…including C. M. Eddy, when he came to town:
I was awakened the next day by the arrival of a most unexpected guest–who under divine Pegāna but C. M. Eddy, Jr., of The City!! He was here on literary business, interviewing magazine editors & stopping with Houdini up in West 113th St. […] Eddy had an engagement at Houdini’s house at midnight, so we had to hustle a bit; but we managed to include the salient points by brisk walking, bidding Loveman farewell at 11:30, after which I piloted Eddy to Houdini’s home via the Bronx subway. […] A telephone call now came from [Sonia H. Lovecraft], asking me to meet her for dinner at the Milan restaurant in West 42nd St., & afer an affirmative reply I got Eddy on the wire & arranged for a general party there–[Lillian D. Clark], Eddy, [Samuel] Loveman, Kirk, [Rheinhart] Kleiner, S H, & H P L. Kirk went down to get S L & R K, & LDC & I rested & proceeded to the restaurant–a very attractive Italian place which Eddy later learnt is a chosen haunt of Houdini & his wife. We all met successfully, & the dinner was delightful. Eddy then went to the Hippodrome to meet Houdini, Kirk, Loveman, & Kleiner went up to Belknap’s, & SH, L D C, & I returned to 169 Clinton, where S H made lemon tea with my Sterno in Kirk’s room.
After this, life tugged Lovecraft and Houdini in different directions, and they do not appear to have kept in contact. Lovecraft showed his own escapology skills by extricating himself from the New York he had come to loathe, and in early 1926 returned to Providence.
Astrology & The Cancer of Superstition (1926)
From 4-9 October 1926, Houdini and his wife Bess performed their show at the Providence Opera House. In the audience were Lovecraft and the Eddys:
When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in hi smagic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.
After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!
I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.
The dinner had two results: Bess Houdini got food poisoning (The Secret Life of Houdini 502), and Houdini asked Lovecraft to do some more ghostwriting for him; nonfiction, this time:
The present season I’m as busy as hell with some special revisory work which I’ve been doing for the well-known conjuror Houdini. I’ve done stuff for him before; but last week he performed in Providence, & took the opportunity to have me go over a lot of stuff which required constant consultation. It was the raw material for a campaign against astrology; & being somewhat in my line, (I had a campaign of my own on this subject in 1914) I rather enjoyed the digging up of data–though it was beastly laborious, & forced me to work continuously till night before last with very little sleep. If it doesn’t knock out all the star-gazing charlatans in the country, I shall feel deeply disappointed! My next job for the sprightly wizard is an attack on witchcraft–which makes me lament with redoubled intensity the lack of a peek at that [Arthur Edward] Waite book in the Old Corner [Bookshop]!
It was a rush job, as Lovecraft had only five days to finish the article and deliver it to Houdini before the illusionist left Providence…but Houdini paid in cash.
This guy was in town early in the month, & rushed me to hell preparing an anti-astrological article to be finished before his departure–a matter of five days; for which I received the not wholly despicable remuneration of seventy-five (yes, LXXV!!!) bucks in tangible (tho’ not very crisp) greenbacks–three twenties, one ten, a two, & three ones. He says he has a devilish lot more for me to do; but just now I’m holding him up for a certainty of decent pay, so in the end he may back out. (He wants me to come to Detroit a week–where he is playing–& talk things over, but I’m sidestrepping that the best I can.–Later still–I see in the paper that the poor guy has just had a collapse.) At present I’m loaded down with a lot of books he’s lent me for research, & a weighty list of subjects–beginning with witchcraft–which e wants tackled. Once I receive orders to go ahead on the witchcraft article, it’s goodbye to the sunny world outside my scholastic cell–for it sure does take digging to satisfy that bozo! Meanwhile I am breathing while breathing is good, & am also helping honest C. M. Eddy Jr. a bit on some work he’s doing for our magical taskmaster. The necromantic neo-Bush is inclined to be dissatisfied with Eddy’s unaided performances, yet poor E. can’t afford to lose so important a client.
Other letters from around the same time repeat that Houdini had invited Lovecraft to Detroit and that Houdini had intimated at more ghostwriting work to be done, but no new details are available aside from the fact that Lovecraft didn’t wish to go to Detroit if he could help it. After leaving Providence, Houdini continued his tour, first to Montreal where he suffered an accident and sent Eddy a brief letter, and then on to Detroit. On 24 October 1926 Harry Houdini collapsed after a final performance at the Garrick Theatre in Detroit, Michigan. Lovecraft followed the news in the papers.
Speaking of work–I see that Houdini still survives, though with a very slim chance of recovery. It would really be a pity for him to be cut off at this time; for he is an enormously good-hearted chap, & has that keen enjoyment of life which only the naive & crude can retain. Just before his seizure he was trying to get me to confer with him in Detroit–though I was declining except in case of urgent necessity. It would e a good arrangement if I could see to all his writings on a regular basis, though I’d hate to be on the jump from town to town–or in N.Y. much–as he might require. He was recently urging me to arrange for a month of intensive revision of scattered data in N.Y. next summer.
The book which Lovecraft was helping C. M. Eddy on for Houdini was a general attack on supernatural beliefs, a thematic sequel of sorts to Houdini’s 1924 A Magician Among the Spirits; it was to be titled The Cancer of Superstition. A draft outline of this book survives at the John Hay Library in the Lovecraft collection, and can be viewed at the Brown Digital Repository; a draft of the first three chapters was completed and is in private hands, having sold at auction in 2016.
The question was, what Lovecraft and Eddy would do with the partially written manuscript now that their client was dead.
I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the tiem! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.
The subject must have eventually been tactfully broached, because Bess Houdini sent a response to Lovecraft declining the continuation of the project. So the last bit of ghostwork remained unfinished, and largely unseen.
Memories & Recollections
Lovecraft remembered Houdini fondly in later years, and while he never publicly revealed his small amount of ghosting, in private correspondence he expressed great admiration for the man.
At that time I was doing a tremendous amount for the conjuror Houdini, with a prospect of handing an enormous amount in future–a whole series of exposes of the different branches of occultism. Then some bally idiot had to give him a ventral punch which sent him back to Abraham’s bosom in a week, & all demand for anti-occult revision naturally evaporated. It was really quite too bad, for the work was genuinely interesting & involved no blah or fakery. Houdini was after real facts & nothing else, & had to have his work absolutely proof against all rebuttals & flaw-pickings from his opponents. . . . .
Poor old Houdini–who actually had a tremendous amount of penetrative skill and workable erudition in this field despite his general lack of culture, and who was incredibly honest in his researches despite the fat that publicity was his primary goal–had a long talk on this subject with Eddy and me less than a month before his death, and no one could fail to appreciate from his descriptions the way all great Hindoo fakir feats evaporate when one buckles down to get first-hand or photographic data. At the coast of much delving and evidential sifting Houdini arrived at the very reasonable conclusion that India’s fakirs obtain their fame through a very shrewd mixture of publicity with a moderate amount of sleight-of-hand skill.
A case of extremely high intelligence devoted to relatively trivial ends is afforded by the magician Houdini, for whom I did some revisory work in the two years preceding his death. He was content to let his mind and taste function intensively in a very narrow and trivial range; becoming a peerless showman yt remaining surprisingly crude and undeveloped in other fields. He was blind and unresponsive to enormous areas of life–yet when his mind attacked any given problem it was easy to observe its lightning power. There was a case of waste for you–a first-rate intellect which might have given its possessor a rich glow of comprehension and achievement in science, scholarship, or philosophy. . . . yet wasted on a narrow, trifling field which gave no rewards beyond those mediocre, superficial ones of professional satisfaction and awdry popular distinction which many a crude bullfighter or brainless cinema hero achieves.
This last recollection was written as part of a long-running argument between Lovecraft and Howard on the superiority of the mental versus the physical, in which each took the position of opposing the preferences of the other. Consequently, Howard would reply:
Your mention of Houdini interests me. You blame him for being a showman when he might have been, in your opinion, a scholar, scientist, or philosopher. How do you know he would have derived more pleasure out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher than he did as a showman? Now, don’t get to thinking again that I’m questioning the superiority of these things over showmanship. I’m simply questioning the assumption that any man would get more satisfaction out of being a scholar, scientist or philosopher, than he would out of being something else. As a born showman, Houdini was undoubtedly happier as the supreme artist of his profession, than he would have been in anything else. You don’t take differences of temperament into consideration.
Lovecraft, challenged on his interpretation for perhaps the first time, responded:
Regarding the late Houdini–I didn’t say I blamed him, but I said I was sorry that so phenomenal a mnd was sidetracked from more richly rewarding fields to a type of activity essentially meagre and sterile. As to the values concerned–the reference on VII, 2 is applicable. The quest of realtive pleasure–whether Houdini would hav got more from life if dedicated to tasks worthy of his brain–brings up the reference on XVIII, 1 nd 2, which in turn refers back to a former letter of mine and introduces the idea of measuring actual richness of experience by the amount of cerebral metabolism concerned. Of course, once Houdini had fallen through chance circumstance into the cheap preference he had, it might have been impossible for him to enjoy a transfer of activity to a profounder and intrinsically rewarding field.
As usual for the argument, neither Lovecraft nor Howard was willing to give much ground, and the Houdini thread was quietly dropped. Many more smaller mentions occur throughout Lovecraft’s letters for the remainder of his life; the most elaborate anecdote being on the infamous “Hindu rope trick”:
In 1924-6 I did a good deal of revisory work for the late magician & exposer of spiritual fakes–Houdini–& he had tremendously interesting & important things to say about the origin of certain typical myths from absolute fiction. Take the well-known tales of Hindoo fakirs–the man who throws a rope up straight into the sky & has a boy climb up & out of sight on it, or the one who puts a boy in a wicker basket, has spectators run swords through it, & then has the boy clamber out unhurt. Up to revent times these things were attributed to the collective hypnotism of the crowd by the magician. There were frequent stories of people who smuggled cameras to such demonstrations, obtained pictures of the magician in which none of the apparent phenomena shewed–even though the visual effect on the living audience was perfect. Well–Houdini went into this matter pretty exhaustively, & found that no first-hand report of such a performance could ever be secured. Dozens of people “had it straight from an eye-witness”–but no real eye-witness could ver, during a long course of years, be located. The inference is obvious. These extreme feats of the fakirs have never been performed. They constitute a well-defined type of folk myth–something everybody believes has occurred, but which has in truth never occurred. Even to this day one can find serious statements of the old “mass hypnotism” theory–but the investigations of Houdini tell their own story. Incidentally–the growth of the camera myth, as above outlined, is an even more vivid specimen of synthetic folklore without base–doubly vivid because of its conspicuous recency.
Another version of this anecdote, without mentioning Houdini, is in a letter to August Derleth (Essential Solitude1.426-427). A decade minus a week after Houdini’s death, Lovecraft recalled his acquaintance for one of the last times:
We certainly never learn from reports just what really did occur, & yet a certain amount of mechanical “magic” exists without question in these demonstrations. Of the nature of that magic, the investigations & the duplicating feats of the late Houdini give at least an opening clue. I saw him do on the stage of the Providence Opera House only a fortnight before his death things impossible according to the known laws of the physical world. That is–things apparently impossible.
In his memoir of Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long recalled asking the writer about Houdini after seeing him on stage at the Hippodrome in 1924:
“He’s a strange little man,” Howard said […] “He talks incessantly and never seems to know when to stop. He seems just a little–well, the sort of person who would get on my nerves if I had to meet him often. But my hat is off to him as a performer. It took genius to do what he did last night. Eight splendid feats, each one more incredible than its predecessor. The illusion he created was unbelievable. He has a magnificent stage presence–I’ve never seen anything that could remotely compare with it. He was absolutely confident, and dominated the audience from first to last, without dispelling the way they must have felt–tha he was taking unjustified risks with his life. That was a very difficult thing to do. he had to create two contradictory impressions–that he could succeed in freeing himself beyond any possibility of doubt, and that his confidence was unshaken in that respect. But he also had to make the audience feel that total failure could not be ruled out, and that he was heroically aware of the danger.”
“Feats of that nature are always spectacularly sensational and are tailored to appeal to what is most credulous in the popular mind. I was almost certain that the performance would have a certain aspect of cheapness, even of clownishness about it. It would have possessed such an aspect, I’m sure, if anyone but Houdini had been on that stage. But there was nothing meretricious about it–no, I mustn’y say what I would have been tempted to say for a moment last night. All such performances are meretricious because they are faked–absurd and exaggerated in every respect. But he made it all seem genuine while you were looking at it, and my hat is off to him, as I’ve said.”
Lovecraft himself would pass away on 15 March 1937. With him died Houdini’s last living link with Weird Tales; for while Henneberger, Wright, Baird, and Kline survived both men, it was because of Lovecraft and “Under the Pyramids” that Houdini’s connection with the Unique Magazine is remembered today. “The Spirit-Fakers of Hermannstadt,” “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover,” and “Ask Houdini” are barely footnotes in the life of the Great Magician, but “Under the Pyramids” remains a favorite story of many Lovecraft fans even today…and through that story, and Lovecraft’s letters, Houdini’s connection to Weird Tales will be remembered for a long time to come.
In 1939, “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” was reprinted in Weird Tales Jun-Jul 1939 issue; a brief notice finally revealed to the pulp public what had been an open secret among his friends, that Lovecraft had a hand in the story.
From that link, Houdini and Lovecraft’s literary legacies forged a new chain of associations.
In 2012, Lance Thingmaker published a small edition, exquisitely printed hardback edition of “Under the Pyramids.” Each copy came in a small locked mailbag; the key to the lock was in a tiny envelope inside the book. It was as perfect an homage to Houdini as you could get: to read the book, you had to first pull a Houdini.
Few, if any, other efforts to acknowledge, honor, or utilize the Lovecraft-Houdini connection are quite so clever or well-done.
Because of their personal acquaintance, the posthumous literary afterlives of Lovecraft and Houdini have been partially intertwined. They have appeared together in a number of novels and graphic novels, including Richard A. Lupoff’s Lovecraft’s Book(1985), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2004), Gordon Rennie and Frazer Irving’s Necronauts(2003), Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown(2010) among others.
These stories tend more to pulpish action and exaggeration than any effort to examine or utilize the real shared history of Lovecraft and Houdini to any substantial degree, and there is a certain irony in that while Lovecraft and Houdini got along well in part because of their shared skepticism of the supernatural, got along well, in this literary afterlife both men are often faced with genuine occultism and a frightfully real gaggle of Mythos entities.
That is the distortion of death, where both men often become caricatures of the personalities they projected to their audience. This is the ultimate unintended consequence of Henneberger’s effort to draw a celebrity in to save his failing pulp magazine, the ripples of effect from that primal cause. No one in 1923 could have foreseen that a ghostwritten story would result in books and comics being made starring the creators almost a century later…yet, here were are.
Suggested Further Reading
The full history of Weird Tales has never been written, and probably will never be. The men and women who founded the magazine and worked in the offices and supplied the words, art, and editing for the magazine from 1923-1954 are all dead, the business files destroyed or dispersed, and while the contents of that magazine have been preserved, we are left with a very incomplete picture of what happened “behind the scenes.”
For much of the details on the business side of Weird Tales, I refer readers to Robert Weinberg’s The Weird Tales Story: Expanded and Enhanced (2021) and John Locke’s The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales(2018). Neither is perfect; Weinberg had a tendency to not cite his sources, or to cite sources now unavailable; and while Locke is an able researcher I don’t agree with all of his interpretations of the available evidence—but that is the nature of digging into Weird Tales lore: disagreements over the contents of old letters and memoirs published in older sources like The Weird Tales Collector and WT50: A Tribute To Weird Tales.
Houdini biographies do not tend to discuss his involvement with Weird Tales, or weird talers H. P. Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy, Jr., in great detail. However, for the general facts of Houdini’s life I’ve relied on Houdini!!!: The Career of Ehrich Weiss (1996) by Kenneth Silverman and The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero(2006) by William Kalush and Larry Sloman. I would be remiss not to mention the Harry Houdini Circumstantial Evidence blog by Joe Notaro, which has covered some of this material (from the Houdini perspective) before, and whose articles are linked above. Leigh Blackmore has written extensively on the Houdini-Lovecraft connection in his contributions to the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association.
Thanks and appreciation to Will Murray, Dave Goudsward, and Leigh Blackmore for all their help.
An Australian Woman looks at Lovecraft by Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer
My involvement with Lovecraft scholarship goes back some twenty-seven years. At one stage I was a huge Stephen King fan, and I found a reference in King’s non-fiction work Danse Macabre to Lovecraft (see King, 1982:132-5). I was studying English literature at Master’s level, around 1992/3, and in the realm of academia, historical writers were more acceptable research subjects than contemporary writers, so I approached the department about a project. The project was approved, but the resident Gothic expert was unable to provide supervision, and I struggled along against a curtain of institutional resistance regarding texts associated with popular culture. My assumption that as a ‘dead white male’ to quote the cliché, Lovecraft would be respected academically was incorrect, and instead he proved to be a controversial and polarizing figure.
One thing that appealed to me about Lovecraft was his evocative ability which appeared to tap into Jungian archetypes. Motifs such as mysterious civilizations to be found under the sea in “The Temple”; forbidden underground activity in “The Rats in the Walls”,together with long-lived/reincarnated sorcerers in “The Alchemist” and “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” all fascinated me. I felt that these tales remained in the imagination long after the first reading and tapped into something in the collective unconscious. Lovecraft’s letters appeared to support my case, declaring: “There are certain standard stories invented before the dawn of history or later, which generations whisper about” including “Man changed to animal, diseases miraculously cured… vampire, dead man moving, ghost, premonitory warning of death &c.” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja, 435).
Another thing that appealed to me was Lovecraft’s references to women in his stories. Hold on–you are going to say–Lovecraft is known for having very few female characters! Remember, I was enclosed by academic conventions at the time, and the majority of the lauded writers were male, with their female characters being stereotypes and/or love interests. Moreover, some of Lovecraft’s contemporary writers, such as the popular Arthur Conan Doyle, had created dynamics where the “homosocial” friendship of males was the entire frame for the story. (McLaughlin 2013:11) Charming though some of these pairings were, the implications were that intellect was a male characteristic and women unwitting domestics.
Lovecraft’s women were different. Not represented in abundance, but with an astuteness and sympathy which biographically speaking, could have come from living much of his life with his mother and aunts. His letters recount his profound admiration of his older aunt, Lillian Delora Phillips Clark, and his dedication to caring duties when she became ill.
Let us look at a couple of examples of Lovecraftian references to women that I haven’t had the opportunity to explore elsewhere. In The Shadow Out of Time (which incidentally journeys to Australia) the narrator includes the names of a mother, wife, and daughter as identifying features in his brief biography.
I am the son of Jonathan and Hannah (Wingate) Peaslee, both of wholesome old Haverhill stock. I was born and reared in Haverhill—at the old homestead in Boardman Street near Golden Hill—and did not go to Arkham till I entered Miskatonic University at the age of eighteen. That was in 1889. After my graduation I studied economics at Harvard, and came back to Miskatonic as Instructor of Political Economy in 1895. For thirteen years more my life ran smoothly and happily. I married Alice Keezar of Haverhill in 1896, and my three children, Robert K., Wingate, and Hannah, were born in 1898, 1900, and 1903, respectively. In 1898 I became an associate professor, and in 1902 a full professor. –H. P. Lovecraft, The Shadow Out of Time
In this passage, possessing a wife, mother, and daughter receive equal acknowledgement with an education and career. The account contrasts sharply with patriarchal genealogies such as those found in the Bible (e.g. Genesis 5, Matthew Chapter 1, NKJV) that are only concerned with the male line.
A few pages later, we find that the wife has a mind of her own and astute judgment. “From the moment of my strange waking my wife had regarded me with extreme horror and loathing, vowing that I was some utter alien usurping the body of her husband.” The wife demonstrates independent agency by obtaining “a legal divorce”, then the “elder son” and “small daughter” also reject the father. The story will show the wife’s interpretation holds truth, receiving confirmation when Peaslee finds an ancient scroll written in his own hand.
The story then begins to detail the narrator’s occult research, travel, and descent into madness. One of the main points of interest in this section is the role female presence plays. At the height of alien possession, even female domestics are denied access to the house. “On the evening of Friday, Sept. 26, I dismissed the housekeeper and the maid.” For a brief time, only a policeman, “a foreign-looking man” and “Dr. Wilson” are allowed entry. On “Sept. 27” Peaslee’s consciousness reappears “just after noon” with “the housekeeper and the maid having meanwhile returned.” Thus, the metadata places madness and alien possession in the realm of the masculine, with normality and health in the realm of the feminine. It is a division of the genders, but it is one I don’t mind, as the mad-woman stereotype has had more than its fair share of exposure elsewhere.
Lovecraft is condemned for his racism. The period before the First World War and especially the years leading up to World War II were times of deplorable social prejudice; and I find in Lovecraft’s letters a record of societal attitudes that are both regrettable and cautionary. I also subscribe to the theory that Lovecraft’s extreme expressions of repugnance might have been products of mild Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum. I know this could upset some fans, but Gary and Jennifer Meyers Lovecraft’s Syndrome: An Asperger’s Appraisal of the Writer’s Life makes interesting reading.
Many people have negative attitudes that constitute racism, but Lovecraft’s reactions to crowded and dirty conditions were so extreme that he saw the stain embodied in visages, prompting ugly outbursts I prefer not to reproduce here. In a letter to Frank Belknap Long, August 21, 1926, Lovecraft wrote:
The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! (Selected Letters 2.68)
This nauseated attitude does appear close to the level of disability. High intelligence and creative output are quite possible for some persons, while large-scale social interactions may remain stressful.
I was challenged to look deeper into Lovecraft’s racism and compare it to the Australian situation. In this country around 1930, significant minority groups included Italian, Greek, and Chinese immigrants. Lovecraft admits admiring the Greek and Roman civilizations more than his own “biological lines” in a letter to Robert Barlow dated 1936. (O Fortunate Floridian! 347) In a letter to Natalie Wooley he refers to “a Chinese gentleman”, and also calls Japan “one of the greatest and most influential nations in the modern world” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 200-2001). It appears that when a nation had produced significant cultural artifacts, Lovecraft became an admirer, at least in theory.
The remaining problem is his prejudice regarding Australian Aborigines. This attitude does appear irredeemable: “Equally inferior—and perhaps even more so—is the Australian black stock […] This race has other stigmata of primitiveness, such as great Neanderthal eyebrow ridges.” (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 199)
This sort of talk is ignorant, reprehensible, and based on outmoded science. Lovecraft ought not to have been disseminating it. However, he by no means originated the heresy, and I would like to respectfully point out the harm similar beliefs have done when espoused by persons of influence and the ability to create policy.
The colonisation of Australia, which commenced in 1778, was largely motivated by the British Empire’s need to acquire space for its subjects. Eckermann (2006:17) suggests that there was a subsequent need to “rationalise and justify” supplanting the Indigenous inhabitants. Borch (2001:225) ) reports that according to Calvinist reasoning, countries ought to be ruled by Christian people. Moreover, following Darwin’s theories, the Aborigines represented a lower stage of the evolutionary scale than the European settlers. These theories and prejudices were solidified into pervading scientific and Institutional racism (Eckermann 2006: 8-12).
The Aboriginal people, who had maintained a complex custodial relationship with the land for thousands of years, were incorrectly perceived as unsophisticated “hunter-gatherers.” According to Locke’s beliefs property rights depended upon working the land, and the colonial government felt this justified applying a doctrine of “Terra Nullis” which violated Indigenous possession (Borch 2001: 231). Initial amiable relations involving trade soured, and conflict resulted in large-scale massacres of Indigenous people (Eckermann 2006: 14-15, 19).
Ramsland (2006:50-51, 55) observes the surviving Indigenous people were considered “a child race incapable of handling their own affairs.” Their autonomy was removed, and decisions were made for them by the so-called “Aboriginal Protection Board.” Between 1900 and 1950 Indigenous families were deliberately taken from their home areas and settled in remote regions, where they lived in overcrowded conditions. The policy of forced relocation failed to acknowledge the Indigenous spiritual connection to their traditional land, causing identity loss and emotional trauma (McMurray and Param 2008: 168; Crespigny et al 2006: 278).
Moreover, the residents of missions and reserves were denied the right to vote or own real estate. They also had limited access to medical attention (Forsyth 2007: 35-38). At an extreme, institutionalised abuse was performed, with Aurukun women reporting children separated from their parents and put into gender-specific dorms. Adults were also chained to trees, flogged and starved (Slater 2008: 6). The practice of “exclusion on demand”, which meant white families could request Indigenous children not attend community schools, resulted in the loss of educational opportunities (Tatz 2001: 32).
A change of government tactic led to policies of “assimilation and integration” being applied between 1950 and 1972. However, Indigenous savings accounts were controlled by the government, effectively quarantining any money they received. The living conditions on reserves continued to be poor, with disease sweeping through camps. An extreme administrative imposition required Indigenous people to seek permission to marry (Forsyth 2007: 38-40; Eckermann 2006: 27; Stolen Wages).In another scandalous social engineering program, Indigenous children were removed from their birth families and placed in foster homes in an attempt to ‘bring them up white’, so as to speak. Wilson (1997:177) details some of the detrimental effects of this program.
In 1967 a national referendum granted the Aboriginal people citizenship (Dugdale & Arabena 2008: 156). Some key improvements include the recognition of native title and land rights through the Aboriginal Land Rights (NT) Act 1976, and the 1992 High Court Decision, Mabo v. Qld (Healey 2007: 2-5). On 13 February 2008 the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, made a formal apology to the Indigenous people regarding the “stolen generation” (The National Museum of Australia 2021).
Unfortunately, Indigenous people continue to experience high levels of unemployment, poor living conditions, and vulnerability to disease. The infant mortality rate is high, and Aboriginal persons have a significantly lower life expectancy than the general Australian population. (See Einsiedel et al 2008: 568; Healey 2010: 6, 8-14; Mathews et al 2008:613-614, 621-622) All this was sadly brought to reality to me a few years ago when an Aboriginal friend died prematurely, becoming another statistic.
So my point is, repeating prejudicial statements can lead to belief, and belief can lead to bigoted action—but let us ask ourselves honestly—are we still at risk of perpetuating things which ought not to be disseminated?
Cecelia Hopkins-Drewer lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has written a Masters paper on H.P. Lovecraft, and M. Lett. Dissertation on “Fairy Tale Motifs” in Nineteenth Century English novels. Cecelia’s poetry has been published in Spectral Realms (edited by S.T. Joshi) and PS: It’s Poetry compiled by the Poetry Soup community. Micro-fictions have appeared in the “Dark Drabbles” series published by Black Hare Press, and the “ScarySnippets”series produced by Nocturnal Sirens. Cecelia’s research interests include Gothic horror, fantasy and popular culture: including film & television.
Margaret St. Clair, of Berkeley, California, writes: “I’ve been a good quiet uncomplainng reader of WEIRD TALES for about ten years—but the prospect of another story by Edmond Hamilton moves me to hysterical outcry. He makes me want to scream and bite my nails—’captured thirty-six suns’ indeed! His style is nothing but exclamation marks; his idea of drama is something involving a fantastic number of light-speeds; he is, in the words of one of my favorite comic strip characters, flies in my soup. He is science-fiction at its worst: all WEIRD TALES needs to make the science-fiction atmosphere perfect is a letter from Forrest J. Ackerman and a story by Hamilton. Oh, and another gripe—I dislike the blurbs you are printing at the first of the stories. They are just a waste of space. I hate vampire and werewolf stories—my blood refuses to congeal for any number of undead clammily hooting about. There was a time when I could be made to shiver by the mention of garlic, but now it’s just something to put in salad. Things like Shambleau are what I like. As long as WT prints stories by Clark Ashton Smith, however, I’ll keep on reading it. His tales have a rounded jewel-like self-containedness that is, artistically, a delight. … And Smith’s drawings are, I think, by far the best in the magazine. … In conclusion, Jules de Grandin is a pain in the neck.” —WEIRD TALES, June 1934
Eva Margaret Neeley was born in 1911; if she was reading Weird Tales for about a decade, then she had begun reading the Unique Magazine from almost the beginning, probably picking up her first issue as a teenager of 13 or 14. She would have read the fantasies of H. P. Lovecraft, C. L. Moore, and Clark Ashton Smith—and in time she would become a prolific pulp writer and novelist herself, one of the last lights of Weird Tales during its waning years in the 1950s under editor Dorothy McIlwraith. Yet Smith is the only one she would come into correspondence with…and therein lies a problem.
Few enough writers get the treatment of even a single book of selected letters, or of a full book-length biography. Lovecraft’s double handful of biographies, from the slight Lovecraft: A Short Biography to the comprehensive I Am Providence, and the dozens of volumes of his letters are a testament to his ongoing popularity and the dedication of fans and scholars. Robert E. Howard has likewise received multiple biographies, and many of his letters were preserved and all of those that survived published in the three volumes of the Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard. Other Weird Talers were not so lucky: there is no Collected Letters for Seabury Quinn or Robert Bloch, no book-length biographies of C. L. Moore or Margaret St. Clair.
Compared to Lovecraft and Howard, Clark Ashton Smith runs a bit of a distant third in terms of scholarship. While bibliographies of his work had been published, and efforts have been made to preserve his fiction, poetry, and translations in print, and even a documentary titled Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams, there is as yet no full biography of the longest-lived of the “Three Muskateers” of Weird Tales, and the volumes of his letters that have been published are relatively few, covering his correspondence with his mentor, the poet George Sterling; the poet and bookman Samuel Loveman who introduced him to Lovecraft; fellow Weird Talers H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth; a slim pamphlet dedicated to his letters with Weird Tales artist Virgil Finlay; and a volume of Selected Lettersfrom Arkham House.
While those six volumes represent a considerable work of scholarship, it does mean there are gaps in Clark Ashton Smith’s life and letters that are difficult if not impossible to fill in compared to Lovecraft or Howard. One of those gaps is his correspondence with Margaret St. Clair. We know they did correspond because four of Smith’s letters addressed to Margaret St. Clair and her husband were published in the Selected Letters; but seeing as this covers a period of 7 years from 1933 to 1940, and that both Smith and Margaret St. Clair lived far past the final letter we have, suggests at least the possibility of longer and richer correspondence which has either been lost or simply not published yet. None of Margaret St. Clair’s letters to Clark Ashton Smith have been published.
The first letter is dated 23 May 1933, and opens:
My dear Margaret and Ray:
Your letter was indeed interesting, and I had meant to write before this, but have been swamped by housecleaning and various other duties.
I have never read Thorndyke’s book on magic, but am listing it as a future purchase if I should ever have any more money to spend for books. In reality, I have read very little daling with the occult science, and, in writing about such things, have merely turned my imagination loose. One of my most prized possessions is Montague Summers’ erudite and curious monograph on The Vampire, which contains much that is récherché. [sic] Summers actually seems to believe in the existence of vampires. —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 207
Margaret Neeley had graduated from the University of California, Berkeley in 1932, and on May 25th of that year she married Raymond Earl St. Clair—who would publish children’s stories under the name Eric St. Clair. The Great Depression was in full swing, but 1932-1933 was a period of great productivity for Smith; he would have stories in eighteen out of twenty-four issues of Weird Tales in those two years, in addition to stories in other pulps and The Fantasy Fan. From Smith’s letter, we can tell that Margaret and her husband were interested in his fantasy and science fiction, and eager for a collection of his work. Smith commented on his upcoming stories, and noted with a touch of bitterness:
Wonder Stories has nothing more of mine at present, and they have been so dilatory in payment that I hesitate to submit anything more. Since I have given Gernsback some of my finest work, I really think he could make an effort to pay at least a small part of his indebtedness. —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208
1933 was also marked by Smith’s self-publication of a pamphlet titled The Double Shadow and Other Fantasies, which was advertised in Weird Tales and The Fantasy Fan, and based on comments in the letter they had purchased or received a copy from Smith and praised it. Smith also mentioned the appearance of his work in the British Not At Night anthologies edited by Christine Campbell Thomson. The end of the St. Clairs’ letter must have shifted to personal news, because Smith wrote:
I think you are wise to purchase your own house, particularly at a time when monetary values and realty are down to rock-bottom. I know the Cragmont district well, and congratulate you on your selection. My best thanks for the invitation which, sooner or later, I hope to accept.
Clark Ashton —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208
The Cragmont is a district in Berkeley, where Margaret St. Clair was doing her graduate studies. She would obtain her master’s degree in Greek Classics in 1934.
The next letter from Clark Ashton Smith to Ray and Margaret St. Clair would be dated 20 January 1937, in response to a present received around New Years. At this point, Smith was selling original sculptures and castings of the same that he carved by hand from the local rock around his cabin in Auburn, California, and the St. Clairs had bought some:
I am glad the several casts and carving arrived intact, and trust that you achieved satisfactory results from the New Year’s Eve ceremony of interrogation. Perhaps I should have told you that if one drink doesn’t draw a reply, the ibation should be repeated. Perseverance is invariably rewarded by such words of golden wisdom as may well serve to illustrate the old adage, in vino veritas. But no doubt you discovered this.
Re your questy as to the order in which the four carvings were done: do the best of my recollection, The Dog of Commoriom was the oldest, the Sorcerer next, and The Mermaid’s Butler third, with Tsathoggua the most recent. Tsathoggua was done in a curious fibroid form of serpentine; and the casts, as a consequence, tend to look like wood-carvings if tinted with colors appropriate to wood. You will note the fibrous structure if you look closely. —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 280-281
Smith carved several hundred figures. An advertisement in The Science Fiction Critic fanzine for March 1937 lists casts for sale with prices, among them “Tsathoggua—relief…40¢,” “The Dog of Commoriom—relief…30¢,” and “The Sorcerer Eibon—head…60¢.” Photos of some of these exist:
The Dog of Commoriom
A decade later, Smith would publish “Checklist: The Carvings of Clark Ashton Smith” in The Arkham Sampler (Winter, 1948), where he describes “The Mermaid’s Butler” as “Head in porphyry. Semi-human, with gills and fish-like side-whiskers.”
Much of the rest of the letter is given over to responses to specific points in the St. Clair’s letter; some are impossible to understand without context (“Your Nazir Indian must have been rather good”), but it is clear elsewhere that they had asked to visit Smith at Auburn, and recommended he try to place some of his art in San Francisco art stores. The tone is more personal and casual than in the previous letter, as might be expected from a longer acquaintance.
The third letter is to Margaret St. Clair alone, and dated 22 February 1940:
I wonder if I can be forgiven the long interim—at last I fear that it is long according to temporal notation—since I last wrote you? But I believe you would forgive if you could know all the circumstances. First, there was my father’s death (I am quite alone now), and since that, a strange and fantastic history of happenings, some of which, I am convinced, have taken place in the realms of fable and socery. So many letters I had meant to write, and should have written, have gone to the bourn of other “good intentions.”
I hope all is well with you and Ray, and that the bulb-gardens (of which you wrote and sent me a fascinating catalogue are flourishing. I can’t think of a better avocation or occupation than gardening. —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 328
Timeus Smith had died on 26 December 1937; that would mean Smith’s later letter to the St. Clairs would have been at least a bit more than two years ago. The bulb-garden that Smith mentions is the St. Clair Rare Bulb Garden, and he would no doubt be referring to the 1937 catalog or 1938 catalog. Smith was himself an avid gardener, which he would take up as an occupation in later life. The St. Clairs would operate the Rare Bulb Garden until 1941; possibly the onset of WW2 made it difficult to source plants from overseas.
A major point of the letter involved the change in editorship at Weird Tales; Farnsworth Wright had been fired and was replaced with Dorothy McIlwraith. There was some hard feelings among the older guard of writers about Wright’s treatment, and Wright himself apparently floated the idea of forming a competing weird magazine—but this would not come to pass, and Wright himself would pass away on 12 June 1940. On a lighter note, Smith also noted that the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy had been established not far away from his cabin. In a postscript to the letter, Smith wrote jocularly:
Smith had a penchant for joking references to sorcery, witchcraft, and necromancy in his letters to Lovecraft et al., and perhaps the jokes in his letters to the St. Clairs is no more than that sort of harmless fun. Yet the St. Clairs apparently did have at least some more-than-typical interest in subjects of magic and witchcraft. Some decades later, according to “Letters from Hardscrabble Creek: Chasing Margaret,” the St. Clairs were initiated into Wicca. While they aren’t known to have started a coven, Smith might have been accidentally prescient in suggesting they might.
How the couple felt about hearing from their friend after such a long silence can only be imagined.
The fourth and final letter was dated 21 April 1940, and begins:
Dear Margaret and Ray:
I had meant to write before this but have been dreadfully busy with the attempted perpetration of hackwork fiction. A very small income, which I have had for many years, dried up at the source some months ago, and I am now absolutely dependent on writing if I am to eat, let alone drink. None of the present fantasy markets (Unknown is the best, I guess) appeal greatly to me; so I am having to compromise more and more with my own tastes and learn new tricks. My latest yarn is a filthy mixture of sex and pseudo science, aimed at one of the “spicy” markets, which won’t appear under my own name but under that of a friend, a very successful pulp writer, who had more commissions on hand han he could get through with.
It was good to hear from you. I have never forgotten you at any time during my cyclic silence. But, for a long time, I wrote no letters at all, except business ones and billets doux. —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 330
Smith had struggled throughout his life with poverty; his poetic genius had never managed to translate itself into any sort of ongoing employment or financial success, and periodic handouts from patrons of the arts kept him a bit above living hand-to-mouth, but to survive he was forced into seasonal labor, piecework, and pulp magazines—each of which carried their own issues. The “spicy” story was probably either “Dawn of Discord” (Spicy Mystery Stories Oct 1940) or “The Old Gods Eat” (Spicy Mystery Stories Feb 1941), which bore the byline of his friend E. Hoffmann Price, who sold successfully to the spicy magazines. Despite Smith’s disparagement of his writing, the spicies were not pornographic: all sizzle and no steak.
The severity of Smith’s financial woes is apparent when he admits that he is looking to sell his plot of land, and even offers to sell some of his books as he considers the possible necessity of moving. The letter would end:
As to those nuns, I guess I really wouldn’t need a dachshund to protect me. And I don’t know what seducing a nun would be like, never having had any experience. Balzac says, somewhere, something to the effect that the pleasure is never so great as when the soul is believed to be in danger of damnation. I fear that my notions of damnation are hardly the orthodox ones. The pleasure would be one-sided in that regard. However…even that…
Clark Ashton —Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 331
The reference to dachshunds may seem a non sequitur, but among her other interests Margaret St. Clair is known to have bred dachshund puppies for sale, so she probably did offer one (seriously or not).
That is the rather unsatisfactory end; it would be five years before Margaret St. Clair would publish her first pulp magazine story in what would become a prolific career (as she said once: “You just have to keep turning out the paragraphs.”), and there are no mentions of her in the later letters of Smith that have been published. Whether they had a falling-out, or if Smith lapsed once more into a “cyclical silence” from which he never emerged, we don’t know. The finding aid for Margaret St. Clair’s papers at the University of California-Riverside is not especially promising, but perhaps might hold some clue for future researchers into this little mystery.
What we do know is that for those years at least, Clark Ashton Smith and Margaret St. Clair shared a connection, however brief, that matured over the years and letters. We might never know how much or how little Smith influenced St. Clair’s own pulp career and writing—but certainly she doesn’t seem to have ever tried to pastiche Smith in the way some have tried to do with Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard. Margaret St. Clair found her own voice, one that fitted the pulp era she found herself in—often lighter and more comedic than Smith’s own sardonic humor. One has to wonder what the author of “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (Weird Tales May 1932) would have thought of “Flowering Evil” (Planet Stories Summer 1950)…but we may never know.
H. P. Lovecraft grew up in a culture where racism was relatively commonplace, and prejudices with regard to race, ethnicity, language, and cultural heritage dominated the national discourse. 135 years after the Declaration of Independence and 46 years after the end of the American Civil War, people still argued about who was a “real” American, or who could be.
In the New-York Tribune for 30 June 1911, an anonymous editor filled some column inches with the article “‘American’ Is Right,” which reads in part:
The article argues in favor of the continued use of “American” as a demonym for citizens of the United States, and “American” as an adjective related to the United States of America and its people—and in common use, the term continues to carry that meaning into the present day.
Buried as it is on page 6 of a slim 14-page daily newspaper, the “‘American’ Is Right” elicited little immediate attention. Some months later, however, reader John L. M. Allen wrote in to the editor concerning the article, and this letter was published in the 10 September 1911 New-York Tribune as “Wants An American Language”:
The years before World War I were marked by increasing nationalism in the United States and abroad; relations between the United States and the United Kingdom were undergoing a change, as close economic relations, common language and culture, racialist ideas, shared history, and similar political ideologies fostered a Great Rapprochement between the two nations. Still, anglophobia remained in the United States, and ultranationalists emphasized the differences rather than the commonalities between United States and United Kingdom culture, a sentiment especially strong in immigrants or those with ties to Ireland or British colonies.
In September 1911, H. P. Lovecraft was in his seclusion; the death of his grandfather in 1904 had forced his mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft and himself to move out of the family house where he had grown up and into smaller quarters; nervous illness in 1908 forced his withdrawal from high school, so that he did not finish his formal education or receive a high school diploma. Twenty-one years old and unemployed, he seems to have largely made his own hours, and filled them in part by reading extensively in newspapers and magazines. As this was some years before Lovecraft’s joining amateur journalism or any regular correspondence that has come down to us, there is little data to go on. However, we know that Lovecraft read “Wants An American Language”—because the opinionated young man wrote his own letter to the editor; “The English Language” was published in the 21 September 1911 New-York Tribune:
Lovecraft was a lifelong and ardent anglophile, a point which would in a few years bring him into contention with the Irish-American amateur journalist John T. Dunn, first with regards to Lovecraft’s support of the United Kingdom in World War I, and then with regard to the Irish War of Independence. As a lover of the English language, Lovecraft was also in favor of British (and, to a point, British Colonial) spelling, as is evident in many of his letters and stories. It would not be out of line to suggest that Lovecraft saw himself as essentially English except in certain trifling legal definitions, and saw the English language as his own:
I deny flatly that American civilisation is composite, or in any way otherwise than Anglo-Saxon. This land was bleak, Indian-haunted wilderness when England found it. England made it what it is. […] If this nation ever becomes really composite; if the polyglot lower elements ever rise to the surface and direct the destinies of the whole people, then the United States will have undergone intellectual and moral death, and must be content to take its inferior place beside Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other decidedly immigrant nations. […] If other nationalities are now represented here, it is only on sufferance. They are charity boarders, as it were. For this is an Englishman’s country. —H. P. Lovecraft to John T. Dunn, 14 Oct 1916, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 166
I stick to the civilisation my blood & people belong to—the Old English civilisation of Great Britain, New England, & Virginia. To that, & to the language & manners characteristic of it. —H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 215
At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s white supremacist notions (“Anglo-Saxons […] by their racial superiority”) and nativist bias (“polyglot mass of sodden foreigners”) were likely as yet unperturbed by broad travel, first-hand experience, or vocal opposition.
Lovecraft’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” as synonymous with “English” in this instance is worth examining. “Anglo-Saxon” is an often misunderstood and misused term that found its place in racial hierarchies because it fit the narrative of an “English race” that the people at the time wanted to impose on their understanding of history—the idea of a homogenous, and above all white, population that was distinct from the indigenous Gaelic peoples of the British Isles or from the British Empire’s colonial possessions. When Lovecraft uses the term “Anglo-Saxon,” he is specifically invoking that idea of racial and cultural unity and the added implications of white supremacy.
By comparison, while “American” has gradually become a term to refer to all citizens of the United States regardless of race or ethnicity, during Lovecraft’s time it was still predominantly seen as a synonymous term for “white” — the default assumption was that “American” referred to someone descended from Northern Europe, probably British, and English-speaking — “Anglo-American” was used when Lovecraft or others felt the need to specify such descent to differentiate from other ethnicities, but even this sometimes involved pushback. After a visit to New Mexico, Robert E. Howard wrote:
The native population is, of course, predominantly Mexican. Or as they call them out there, Spanish-Americans. You or I would be Anglo-Americans according to their way of putting it. Spanish-American, hell. A Mexican is a Mexican to me, wherever I find him, and I don’t consider it necessary for me to hang any prefix on the term “American” when referring to myself. —Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jul 1935, A Means to Freedom2.872
Lovecraft, Howard, and many others during this period were inculcated in the use of racialist language to both define and promulgate the ideas of white supremacy. To Lovecraft, the use of “Anglo-Saxon” was a technical and specific term to emphasize the English people he felt himself a part of, biologically and culturally. Even though the idea that “Anglo-Saxon” race and culture are essentially pseudo-scientific and historical fictions, they were commonly accepted as real at the time, and used by folks like Howard and Lovecraft to define their own identities. While we don’t have much material from the period of 1910-1912 to work with, based on Lovecraft’s later letters this kind of comment slipping would probably have been relatively common—after all, “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-American” were the prevailing paradigm. Who was going to correct him?
An answering letter to the editor appeared as “Not All Anglo-Saxons” in the 25 September 1911 New-York Tribune:
This is an impressive turnaround time…all the more so since Lovecraft’s letter was published on the 21st, yet Herbert O’Hara Molineux’s reply is dated the 20th! What likely happened is that the next day’s paper was sold in the late night or early morning of the 20th/21st, and Molineux was incensed enough to write a letter to the editor immediately, complete with date (or else there was an error somewhere in the transcription and printing). Even with Molineux in New York at the time, it must have been delivered and read by the editor within a day or two, who then chose to publish it only a day or two after that, so only four days after Lovecraft’s letter was published there was an answer. This small controversy in letters foreshadows Lovecraft’s later disputes-by-mail in the letters column of the Argosy and All-Story in 1913-1914.
Not much is known Herbert O’Hara Molineux (sometimes Molyneux); a number of short articles and letters to the editor were published by that name, mostly between 1910-1914 in New York papers, often on subjects of Ireland and Irish or “Celtic” peoples in newspapers, and those same articles describe him as an antiquarian and a member of the Gaelic Society of New York. Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans in the United States were still often discriminated against in the early 20th century and its racialist schemas, but the rise in nationalism had affected Ireland and the Irish diaspora too, with a renewed interest in Irish language and culture called the Gaelic Revival, which would precede and inform the broader Celtic Revival of the 1920s and beyond.
It is not surprising to see in this letter that Molineux’s hibernophilia or celtiphilia ran up hard against Lovecraft’s anglophilia. The most notable point in Molineux’s argument is not his assertion that most Americans are Celts, but his deriding Lovecraft for his racial prejudice. If Lovecraft read these lines, it might be the first denunciation of his racism he had ever seen in print—predating “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson by some years.
Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Lovecraft ever read this rebuke. This period of Lovecraft’s life is simply too poorly documented; where we would normally turn to his letters to find some reference to Molineux or the brief affray in letters, there is nothing in the indices to shed any light on the subject. It is interesting to speculate how Lovecraft might have responded; in 1915, private correspondence with friends and peers ultimately tempered and muted Lovecraft’s instinct for a vicious reprisal in print, and even his poetic rejoinder went unprinted. Interestingly, there is a poetic barb aimed at Herbert O’Hara Molineux, but it is from several years later, in a different newspaper, and not at all in Lovecraft’s normal style or signed by one of his known pseudonyms.
In the context of Lovecraft’s other letters, this brief exchange doesn’t share much of anything new in terms of his prejudices—we knew he was a nativist and an anglophile—but it is a data point that extends our understanding of how Lovecraft’s views on race were received during his own lifetime. While white supremacy prevailed in the United States, even down to the terminology of history and science, it was not the sole viewpoint. Lovecraft would learn, as he emerged from his period of relative obscurity into the company of amateur journalism and then pulp writing, there were many people who did not agree with the prejudices he had long accepted as facts, and other perspectives of history and biology that would challenge his preconceptions.
As with several of his other letters, Molineux’s “Not All Anglo-Saxons” was picked up and published in at least one other paper, which can be found in an online newspaper database; from there the chain of letters-to-the-editor can be traced back through papers whose scans don’t include sufficiently accurate optical character recognition to search for specific names. Otherwise, this small affray in letters might have gone unnoticed.