“Black God’s Kiss” (1934) by C. L. Moore

As to the work of C. L. Moore—I don’t agree with your low estimate. These tales have a peculiar quality of cosmic weirdness, hard to define but easy to recognise, which makrs them out as really unique. […] In these tales there is an indefinable atmosphere of vague outsidesness & cosmic dread which marks weird work of the best sort. How notably they contrast with the average pulp product—whose bizarre subject-matter is wholly neutralised by the brisk, almost cheerful manner of narration! Whether the Moore tales will keep their pristine quality or deterioriate as their author picks up the methods, formulae, & style of cheap magazine fiction, still remains to be seen.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William F. Anger, 28 Jan 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 227

C. L. Moore burst into the pages of Weird Tales in 1933 with “Shambleau”—a science fantasy that earned universal praise and introduced her character Northwest Smith. She followed that success with three more tales of Smith: “Black Thirst” (WT Apr 1934), “Scarlet Dream” (WT May 1934), and “Dust of the Gods” (WT Aug 1934). These stories were all self-contained, with a common setting and and characters, but with no strong narrative continuity. These episodes all took place during Smith’s life as an interstellar outlaw, but there was no overarching plot between episodes, and few if any clues to put them in any order aside from order of publication.

Then in the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, Moore introduced a new character—a fiery, red-headed warrior-woman in medieval France—Jirel of Joiry. In later years, recalling the character, Moore remembered:

Long, long ago I had thoughts of a belligerent dame who must have been her progenitor, and went so far as to begin a story which went something like this: “The noise of battle beating up around the walls of Arazon castle rang sweetly in the ears of Arazon’s warrior lady.” And I think it went no farther. So far as I know she stands ther eyet listening to the tumult of an eternal battle. Back to her Jirel of Joiry no doubt traces her ancestry.

Jirel’s Guillaume whom I so ruthlessly slew in the first of her stories, yet whom I can’t quite let die, was patterned after the drawing of Pav of Romne with which I illustrated her latest story, “The Dark Land” in Weird Tales. I made that drawing somewhere in the remote past, and have cherished it all these yars in the confidence taht someday it would come in handy. I meant to use it to illustrate “Black God’s Kiss,” first of the Jirel tales, but somehow the story got out of hand, and I’ve never since been able to introduce a situation it would fit until “The Dark Land.”
—C. L. Moore, “An Autobiographical Sketch of C. L. Moore,” Echoes of Valor 2, 37-38

Weird Tales v27 n01 [1936-01]_0054

Weird Tales Jan 1936

In later years, she would write of her two most famous redheads:

Shambleau and Jirel bear a close relationship to each other, and both, I believe, unconsciously reflect the woman I wish I could have been. I owe a great deal of my literary outpourings to Himself, My Unconscious.
—C. L. Moore, The Faces of Science Fiction

The basic plot, of a strange journey and a Faustian bargain, are familiar enough elements from a dozen weird fiction stories. Female protagonists, especially swordswomen, were rare. Robert E. Howard had included Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast” (WT May 1934), and long-time readers might recall R. T. M. Scott’s “Nimba, The Cave Girl” (WT Mar 1923), so it wasn’t as if Jirel was exactly the first to grace the pages of the Unique Magazine—but Moore brought her own unique style.

At least, H. P. Lovecraft thought so, and wasn’t shy to tell others about it:

Black God great stuff—real nightmare outsideness.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 7 Oct 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 183

Oct. W.T. about average, on the whole. The Moore item is really very notable—full of a tensity & atmospheric suggestion of encroaching dream-worlds which none of the other authors seem able to achieve. I’ll try to look up the item in Astounding, even though it be les from the the hackneyed & conventional.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Oct 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 187

“The Black God’s Kiss”, despite overtones of conventional romance, is great stuff. The other-world descriptions & suggestions are stupendous.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin et al. 248

Nor was Lovecraft alone in his praise, as the story received praise in “The Eyrie,” Weird Tales‘ letters pages, such as:

I (and I’m sure many others) want to hear a great deal more of Jirel. She’s the kind of person I’d like to be myself. A sort of feminine version of Conan the Cimmerian. He, too, is one of my favorites.
—Mary A. Conklin, Weird Tales Dec 1934

The creator of Cthulhu’s admiration for the tale can be easily understood; this is easily the most Lovecraftian of C. L. Moore’s early stories. Jirel’s descent into the tunnel recalls stories like Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Festival,” and her description is as pure an effort at non-Euclidean geometry as anything Lovecraft attempted:

There was something queer about the angles of those curves. She was no scholar in geometry or aught else, but she felt intuitively that the bend and slant of the way she went were somehow outside any other angles or bends she had ever known.
C. L. Moore, “Black God’s Kiss” in Weird Tales Oct 1934

The comparison of Jirel with Conan is one that would be made again, as Jirel and the Cimmerian’s adventures continued. They were contemporaries, and their creators thought a bit alike, as they would find out through correspondence, when Robert E. Howard let her read his own story about a flame-haired French swordswoman, Dark Agnes de Chastillon. Moore’s Jirel stories tend to lean more into the sorcery than the swordplay; while she has a sword and uses it in “Black God’s Kiss,” her quest is a very un-Conan-like one for a sorcerous weapon to aid her where force of arms has failed, and in many of her other stories she faces supernatural threats where her blade is useless.

If many of the readers liked “Black God’s Kiss,” at least one of them did not:

The Black God’s Kiss was by far the poorest C. L. Moore story yet. The first three of C. L. Moore’s tales were excellent, but the last two were rather pediculous.
—Fred Anger, Weird Tales Dec 1934

William F. Anger’s sour note in “The Eyrie” might be forgotten, except for one coincidence: he had become a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft. Though Lovecraft had not yet started to correspond with C. L. Moore, as he later would, he felt obliged to defend the merits of Moore’s fiction, including “Black God’s Kiss”:

Regarding the Moore stories—one has to separate the undeniably hackneyed & mechanical romance from the often remarkable background against which it is arrayed. “The Black God’s Kiss” had a vastly clever setting—the pre-human tunnel beneath the castle, the upsetting of gravitational & dimensional balance, the strange, ultra-dimensional world of unknown laws & shapes & phenomena, &c. &c. If that could be taken out of the sentimental plot & made the scene of events of really cosmically bizarre motivation, it would be tremendously powerful. The distinctive thing about Miss Moore is her ability to devise conditions & sights & phenomena of utter strangeness & originality, & to describe them in a language conveying something of their outre, phantasmagoric, & dread-filled quality. That in itself is an accomplishment possessed by very few of the contributors to the cheap pulp magazines. For the most part, allegedly “Weird” writers phrase their stories in such a brisk, cheerful, matter-of-fact, colloquial, dialogue-ridden sort of style that all genuine ene of shadow & menace is lost. So far, Miss M. has escaped this pitfall; though continued writing for miserable rags like the current pulps will probably spoil her as it has spoiled Quinn, Hamilton, & all the rest. The editors will encourage her worst tendencies—the sticky romance & cheap “Action”—& discourage everything of real merit (the macabre language, the original descriptive touches, the indefinite atmosphere, the brooding tension, &c.) which her present work possesses. Nothing will ever teach the asses who peddle cheap magazines that a weird story should not & cannot be an “action” or “character” story. The only justification for a weird tale is that it be an authentic & convincing picture of a certain human mood; & this means that vague impressions & atmosphere must predominate. Events must not be crowded, & human characters must not assume too great importance. The real protagonists of fantasy fiction are not people but phenomena. The logical climax is not a revelation of what somebody does, but a glimpse of the existence of some condition contrary to nature as commonly accepted.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William F. Anger, 16 Feb 1935, LRBO 229

While Lovecraft never wrote these exact words to C. L. Moore, when they did get to corresponding she had her own response:

Also, since I’m disagreeing with everything today, I’ll have a shot at your dislike for romance contrasted with your love and understanding of fantasy. You don’t ahve to take Dumas any more literally than you do Dunsany. Of course lots of people probably do look persistently through rose-colored glasses, but then dear, sincere old Lumley believes implicitly in his phantasms. To me it’s just as pleasant to imagine during the duration of the story that there is a loely springtime world people exclusively by handsome heroes and exquisite heroines and life is one long romp of adventure with no unpleasant attribtues at all, as it is to believe for the length of the story that time, space and natural law can be elastic enough to permit the existence of a Shambleau or a Cthulhu (have I spelled him right?). Your point, of course, is that to be acceptable as release-literature the hapenings must be incredibly outside, not aganst the phenomena of nature. Does that mean that you can’t with self-respect, enjoy Howard’s gorgeous Conan sagas, which are surely pure romance for the most part?
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 88-89

A large part of the charm in the early Moore stories, be they tales of Northwest Smith or Jirel of Joiry or science fiction tales like “The Bright Illusion” (Astounding Stories Oct 1934) is the imaginative and lush descriptions, often trying to capture in words some utterly alien emotion or experience above and beyond what anyone might imagine a young woman working as a secretary in an Indianapolis bank during the Great Depression might ever dream of. Yet she did dream them, and her early fantasies made a mark.

There are two interesting sequels to “Black God’s Kiss.” The first is quite literally a direct sequel: “Black God’s Shadow” was published only a couple months later in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales. This would be the first direct sequel she had ever written, a step away from the disconnected adventures of Northwest Smith—and while she never developed the setting of Joiry with as much depth as Robert E. Howard did the Hyborian Age for Conan, it was still a step in the direction of the fantasy worlds that would follow in coming decades.

The second sequel is more complicated. In early 1934, Lovecraft’s young friend R. H. Barlow began to correspond with C. L. Moore. Barlow learned that Moore was in talks with William Crawford to try and publish some of her stories. Barlow was an amateur printer and bookbinder, and wanted to publish a small edition of her stories. The correspondence between C. L. Moore and Lovecraft actually began when Barlow enlisted Lovecraft’s aid to try and convince here to give Barlow the good stories:

I shall be glad to cooperate in any way possible, & will endeavour at the earliest opportunity to write the authoress such a letter as you suggest—pointing out sound as distinguished from commercial lines of development, yet avoiding any air of supercilious fault finding or lack of appreciativeness. There is no question but that her work possesses a strain of authentic cosmic alienage & extreme originality found in no other weirdist since Klarkash-Ton—a pervasive atmospheric tension, & a curious facility in evoking images of utter trangeness & suggesting monstrous gateways from the tri-dimensional world to other spheres of entity.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Mar 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 217

There was some finagling, but eventually Barlow and Lovecraft convinced Moore to allow Barlow to publish a small edition containing “Shambleau,” “Black Thirst,” and “Black God’s Kiss”—Lovecraft considered her best stories at the time. As it happened, neither Barlow or Crawford’s volumes ever came to press, although Barlow did print and bind some other works of Moore’s, notably a few copies of “Were-Woman.”

Without “Black God’s Kiss” and Jirel of Joiry, H. P. Lovecaft and C. L. Moore may never have begun to correspond—which would have changed the trajectory of both their lives.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Lovecraft Slept Here” (2003) by Denise Dumars

The hotel had an H. P. Lovecraft room, which Laetitia had booked for us when she learned of my interest in the man and his writings. She was verye excited about it for the desk clerk remarked that Lovecraft himself had once stayed there. I did not want to burst her bubble of adorable enthusiasm by telling her that, despite his desire to visit Clark Ashton Smith in Northern California, he had never had the chance to visit the West Coast.
—Denise Dumars, Lovecraft Slept Here 199

Even when he was alive, H. P. Lovecraft was a name to conjure with. Friends like Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Robert Bloch put characters based on him into their stories, so did his future wife, Sonia H. Greene in “Four O’Clock” (1949). After his death, writers in Weird Tales like August Derleth and Manly Wade Wellman sometimes dropped his name into their stories, blending fact and fiction, making the creator of Cthulhu into an expert in Mythos lore who disguised fact as fiction. It was a short step from there until Lovecraft became a kind of legendary figure, and not every story that invoked or involved Lovecraft necessarily tied directly into the Mythos.

Sometimes, things run in series. Robert Bloch’s “The Man Who Collected Poe” (1951) inspired Gregory Nicoll’s “The Man Who Collected Lovecraft” (1977), Randall Larson’s “The Thing That Collected Bloch” (1977), Phillip C. Heath’s “The Man Who Collected Bloch” (1987), Phillip Weber’s “The Man Who Collected Lovecraft” (1987), Kim Newman’s “The Man Who Collected Clive Barker” (1990), Mark Samuel’s “The Man Who Collected Machen” (2010), and Nick Mamatas’ “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” (2017). These are stories less about their subjects than about the obsession with their subjects, the fandom and the kind of behavior it can generate.

This is metafiction in the sense that there is a nod and a wink to the stories; plenty of historical figures have fiction written about them, but these are generally stories written by fans, about fans, with in-depth knowledge of the fandom, and mostly for fans. When you read a story like Fritz Leiber Jr.’s “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966) or “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” (2011) by Naomi Novik, the narrative leans more heavily toward homage, but for the stories that are focused more on the legend, Lovecraft himself doesn’t have to appear at all. It’s his legacy, the idea of him that informs the atmosphere and drives the action.

Which is the case with “Lovecraft Slept Here.”

Denise Dumars is familiar with Lovecraft fandom, with articles in ‘zines like Crypt of Cthulhu and Tekeli-Li, poems like “Cthulhu” and “The Whitleys Have The Innsmouth Look” published in Space and Time and The Arkham Sampler—and there is a lot about “Lovecraft Slept Here” that might strike a fellow Lovecraft-fan as correct. The protagonist as the ardent devotee of Lovecraft, secure in their formidable knowledge and constantly dropping “eldritch” and “squamous” into the descriptions of the scenery; the chintzy Oregon hotel that claims Lovecraft slept there, even though that is an impossiblity. It is a reasonably solid set-up, it hits a few of the right cues…so why doesn’t it work?

There is a degree of tongue firmly in cheek in “Lovecraft Slept Here,” which ends with a last line that strives to do one better than “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” and in terms of content and approach it is a close cousin to stories like Mamatas’ “The Dude Who Collected Lovecraft” and the other variations on the theme. Pacing is one problem; the story drags a bit at the beginning, then is rushed at the end; the reveal, when it happens, has no real foreshadowing or build-up. Good atmosphere and pacing can make up for limited plot, but lacking both, this is a fan effort that falls a bit flat. The poor protagonist is ultimately a caricature of fandom, like Comic Book Guy, but not nearly so entertaining as he strikes his final pose.

Which is, really, the point of these kind of metafiction stories. Not necessarily to be moralistic, or to excite the imagination by tying supernatural fantasies to fandom, but as a kind of acknowledgement of fan behavior—an ability for the community to look at themselves and laugh, and maybe to acknowledge something of the absurdity that underlies the seriousness and drama in all human endeavors. These stories are the mirrors in which fandom reflects something of itself, warts and all, and often thumbs a nose at its own face.

“Lovecraft Slept Here” by Denise Dumars was published in the anthology of the same name.
It has not been reprinted.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” (1994) by Nancy Collins

And that wonderful voice and Southern attitude has grown in her work, permeated it. Made it unique. It’s not just a pleasant echo anymore, it’s the whole voice, and it’s special. These stories will prove that to you. They are as varied and wonderful as they come. Some of them, even if they weren’t good, deserve attention just for their unique titles: “Binky Malomar and his Amazing Instant Pussy Kit”, for example.
—Joe R. Lansdale, introduction to Nameless Sins 13

There’s an art to a good title. The title is the first thing you see of any book or story, unless an author happens to already be so successful that they put their name in larger font than. When a reader runs their name over a book spine or a cover, down the table of contents, or increasingly in some digitally organized list, the title is the first chance to hook the reader in. A title is a promise to the reader about what is to come—and pulp writers like H. P. Lovecraft knew that. Which is why he famously wrote:

One thing—you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it.
—H. P. Lovcraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.294

If your title is enough to get someone to read the story, to get eyeballs on it, you’ve already won half the battle as an author. For Lovecraft, what he was selling to readers was not the promise of the title, it was the twist, the surprise. Anyone looking for the rats in “The Rats in the Walls” is playing Lovecraft’s game, setting themselves up to be shocked.

So why did you want to read about “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit”?

Prurient interest, scientific curiosity, maybe just a tingle of admiration at the pure audacity? Nancy Collins knows how to push buttons; just turning the page can be a transgressive act when your title is “Binky Malomar and his Amazing Instant Pussy Kit,” and the readers become complicit as they read the long title with the naughty word in it and still keep reading. If it feels not quite as naughty in the days when vast portions of cyberspace are devoted to pornography, then keep in mind that this was aiming for a market which is not quite extinct, but is in serious decline: the ribald story.

I first wrote this in 1983 and sent it to National Lampoon, which duly informed me they didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts—no matter how much they liked them. The story was inspired by the classic NatLamps of old, William Kotzwinkle’s Jack In the Box, and the travails of a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) who was actually desperate enough to send away for “instant pussy tablets” advertised in the back of Harvey.
—Nancy Collins, Nameless Sins 166

The ribald story has a lot in common with weird fiction. In both cases, the point is not exactly to scare or arouse the reader, but to stimulate the mind. Hints and suggestions are potent at building up atmosphere and exciting the reader’s imagination. They can be transgressive in ways that stick with the reader long after the story is over, explicit in some areas and deliberately evasive in others. Many of the classics of ribald literature have had a fantastical element: old fairy tales before Disney got to them, for instance, and Rabelaisian works like Béroalde de Verville’s Fantastic Tales, or the Way to Attain (as translated by Arthur Machen). The weird ribald tale, or a story that combines elements of transgressive sexual humor and horror, is a traditional mode—especially appropriate when after many ribald adventures, the protagonists come at last to a nastily moralistic end.

For most of the “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit,” Nancy Collins delivers exactly what the readers might expect from the title: one 1980s teenagers sexual frustration made horrifyingly manifest. A Lynchian descent into the small ads at the back of comic books and skinmags, as dire in its way as some of the raunchy 1980s comedies. Binky himself is less sympathetic than pathetic; he evokes a degree of pathos, but there are no illusions that his character is any morally superior to any other in the story. We just spend more time with him and his troubles…and Nancy Collins is one of those authors that knows that while it may be wrong to go too far, it is always fun to go much, much further than too far.

“I’m gonna go to my uncle’s farm this weekend. My cousin Horace is gonna let me fuck one of the sheep. You wanna go?”

The thought of Skooky laboring behind the shanks of some poor, unsuspecting ewe was enought to make Binky want to barf.
—Nancy Collins, “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy kit” in Nameless Sins 173

It isn’t until almost the end that readers start to learn that, like Lovecraft, Nancy Collins knows better than to give the whole game away: the title is the tasty bait for the reader to nibble at, once they’re hooked, she reels them in…and the result is satisfying. The ending is absolutely what makes the entire story. It is that little step past over the edge from reality into the world of the fantastic, the Mythos intruding on reality, and the end result is quite literally climactic—this may be the best Cthulhu Mythos stories about masturbation that has ever been written.

Like Nancy Collins’ “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” pulls no punches and is essentially a standalone Mythos story, a one-off which rewards a familiarity with the Cthulhu Mythos but doesn’t try to fit into any larger chronology or define some new corner of Lovecaft country of its own…but it works because it doesn’t have to do any of that. It is a relatively straightforward, punchy story with solid comedic timing that knows exactly what it’s doing and why…and it is kind of sad that it’s gone unrecognized as a really good weird ribald story, a much-neglected genre which might include stories like Karl Edward Wagner’s “Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse” (1994) and Robert Bloch’s “Philtre Tip” (1961).

“Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” by Nancy Collins was published in her collection Nameless Sins (1994). It has not been reprinted.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft

A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft
by Connie Todd Lila

A sixty cent paperback with a lurid, horror movie cover brought H.P. Lovecraft into my world and began a love affair that is thriving these 50+ years later. The circumstances of my introduction most certainly played a forceful role in the depth of his impact on me. A childhood case of polio went misdiagnosed as one of those “mysterious childhood fevers,” since I lived in the Age of the Vaccine… “It couldn’t be polio, she’s had the shots.” The disease attacked not my legs, but my spine. Already a loner at school, the twisting of my spine drew comments from classmates, forcing me deeper into my own keeping. At age 14, I underwent spinal fusion surgery to give me as normal a backbone as was possible. I spent that year, my freshman year, in a complete body cast, flat in bed. An easel contraption made to sit on my plaster chest held a book, making it possible for me to work with tutors and keep up with classes. Most importantly, that easel made it possible to read. American aphorist Mason Cooley said, “Reading gives us someplace to go when we have to stay where we are.” My sanity serves as proof of that statement. If Lovecraft’s madness-filled mountains, crumbling edifices, and gaunt-haunted nights had not entered my isolated young life just then, I can’t say where my mind might have wandered, or promise that I’d have wanted to come back.

The paperback anthology that, literally, made possible my endurance that year was a present from my mother. Very familiar with my childhood taste for classic black and white horror films, monster movies and scary stories, this paperback with a flaming skull on a dark cover caught her eye in a supermarket checkout lane. In this author, I found kindred, a companion to sit with me all the long nights sleep would not come; a magician with a wand of words who placed before my mind’s eye fantastic, terrible, and wonderful images into which I could “journey” and escape my prison of plaster. Odd as it is to say, the madness he offered me to “go into” kept me sane–and me a young girl.

Company did not come to my house. There was abuse, cruelty and sadness there, and I believe, these decades later, that my mother kept company away so no one would see how “wrong” our home was. I learned of H.P.L.’s own preference for solitude and his own company. In L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), de Camp relates how Lovecraft’s maternal grandfather used to “lead him about the unlighted house at night” to cure the boy of fear of the dark. “For the rest of his life, Lovecraft preferred night as the time to be up and abroad.” (de Camp, Chapter Two “Bent Twigs” 17-18). In the same chapter, de Camp describes the eight-year-old Lovecraft as “a born bookworm, he was affected more by the printed word than by his peers” (18). I sought solitude myself, some for my spinal oddity, some from habit. If Lovecraft found solace in words, not people, so would I.

The opening line of “The Outsider” (per Joshi and Schultz, probably written Spring or Summer, 1921; first published in Weird Tales April 1926) proclaims: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.” I concede that the drama in this far exceeds the actuality of my experience; in my defense, the reader can understand how and why my young self would cling so fiercely to the author of that line… he “gets it.”

Becoming a Lovecraftian scholar required me to vastly stretch my vocabulary. I first read his works with a dictionary at my side. Of course, I fell in love with every line of purple prose. H.P.L. said of himself, of “The Outsider,” in a 1931 letter to J. Vernon Shea (from An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, 2001), that this story was “. . . almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language” (198). This language painted fantastical places for me to “go,” from my limited, plastered world. He continues with not being able to understand how he could have let himself be tangled in such “baroque & windy rhetoric” (from the same letter). It still moves me that Lovecraft couldn’t avoid purple prose even when being self-critical for its use. In my sophomore year, upright and mobile again after re-learning to walk, I began a study of the development of Lovecraft’s genius by tracking down and reading, in order, his body of work. Today, as a published writer, I credit my own peacock tail of a vocabulary and love of the written word to my early–and ongoing–obsession with Lovecraft.

In “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (per Joshi and Schultz, written November-December 1931; first published as a book 1936, Visionary Publishing Company, Everett, PA), I found the comfort of the familiar yet again, in a grown up, darker interpretation of my girlhood fascination with mermaids. This novella even inspired a D&D campaign I composed around the Cthulhu Mythos (…in which I may or may not have furtively placed an opened sardine can on a warm radiator at the game point where one of the Great Old Ones rose from the waves…dark gaming is all about atmosphere). I continue to be impressed anew by his mind; to wit, a recent PBS cooking program featured an island inspired dish with “Ia” in the title. The translation means “fish,” something I never knew. What Lovecraftian fan cannot chant, “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn,” even if we didn’t know what we were saying?

Into this unabashed celebration of the person who connected the dots for me in a flavor I craved, and helped me keep my own dots together during a terrible time in my girlhood, I do interject a mild complaint. The volume, More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (annotated by S.T. Joshi and Peter Cannon, 1999), is a fine reference, scholarly notes alongside ten of Lovecraft’s tales. My complaint is directed to the back cover, to the comment there. It is not credited, simply pronounces Lovecraft’s work “on a par with Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft’s mentor.” To be fair, this comment could simply mean that Lovecraft chose Poe as his scholarly mentor, which he certainly did. During his many tutored removals from school, he augmented his studies by reading voraciously, proclaiming at age eight: “I struck EDGAR ALLAN POE!!” Poe remained his lifelong enthusiasm and the strongest single influence on him. (de Camp, Chapter Three “Night Gaunts,” 31). The comment, unsupported, always implies to me that Lovecraft studied with Poe. Poe died 10-7-1849, according to biographies. Lovecraft was born 8-20-1890. Short of a really static-free séance, Poe could not have actually “mentored” Lovecraft. I wonder if I am the only Lovecraft scholar distressed by this casual comment? If so, please forgive a fanatic, driven from a youth isolated and different.

If the truest compliment is mimicry, then I do my own chosen mentor justice with my published work. A forthcoming anthology of Lovecraftian fiction from Infernal Ink Press contains my own dark piece; and there is another one jumping up and down on my desk, eager for me to give it wings to its own submission call.

I’ve been researching and re-reading Lovecraft for more than half a century now. Nowhere have I come upon a claim that his work saved anyone’s sanity–except here.

Connie Todd Lila writes from her home in the Central Wisconsin woods. Her published works include “Selkie Lament” (fiction) in Enchanted Conversation; “Dandelion Spring” (poem) in The Essential Herbal; “Don’t Sew Your Weddin’ Dress” (poem) in Hypnopomp Literary Magazine; “Keeping The Faith” (fiction) in The Monsters We Forgot; “Changeling” (poem) in Fiddler’s Green Peculiar Parish Magazine; “Smoke and Mirrors” (fiction) in Dark Carnival; and “Key” (fiction) to be published in the forthcoming anthology from Infernal Ink Books.

“A Polio Survivor Looks At Lovecraft” is her first guest post for a blog.

Copyright 2022 Connie Todd Lila

Eldritch Tarot (2021) by Sara Bardi

As for fortune-telling—I won’t try to argue the matter, but believe your continued studies in the various sciences will eventually cause you to abandon belief. Authentic psychology is one thing, but irresponsible prophecy is another.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 19 December 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 348

After a successful crowdfunding, Sara Bardi’s Eldritch Tarot has been unleashed upon the world—but this is not the first and will certainly not be the last tarot to take inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. To review this deck properly requires a certain understanding of what tarot is, where it comes from, how it has developed over the centuries—and how and why Lovecraftian tarots became a thing.

What has come to be the “standard” deck of playing cards in the English-speaking world are has ten pip cards (numbered Ace to 10) and three court cards (Jack, Queen, King) in four suits (typically diamonds ♦, spades ♠, hearts ♥, and clubs ♣). These 52 cards are often augmented by two “Jokers,” who have no suit and often are used as wild cards for some games. The exact number of cards, suits, etc. have varied over the centuries and in different countries, through a long and not always well-documented evolution.

Playing cards appear to have entered Italy from trade with the Mamlūk Empire in about the last quarter of the Fourteenth century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 8-9, 12-13). These early Mamlūk decks had four suits (Swords, Coins, Cups, and Polo Sticks); when translated into a European cultural milieu, where polo was less popular, the fourth suit became Batons—and over time, as the deck designs proliferated throughout Europe, different countries and places developed slightly different names and symbols. So the Italian suit of Coope (Cups) became Herzen (Hearts) in German, and Rosen (Roses) in Switzerland; Italian Denari (Coins) became Oros (Gold) in Spanish, Schellen (Bells) in German, Diamonds in English. Spade (Swords) became Spades in English, and so on forth.

Tarot cards are a branch of the evolution of the “standard” deck, and were intended to play games. A typical contemporary tarot deck has four suits (typically Cups, Coins, Swords, and Batons), each with pip cards (A to 10) and four court cards (Knave, Knight, Queen, King); twenty-one trumps, and a Fool card, which gives a total of 78. As with the “normal” playing deck, this was not set in stone, and there were many variations, especially considering the suits, the number and type of trumps, how they were ordered, etc. The trumps were incorporated for trick-taking games: whoever had the higher trump took the trick. Contemporary trick-taking games like Bourré played with normal playing carts designate one of the suits as trumps at the start of the game. In contemporary uses for divination & magic, the trumps (including the Fool) are typically called the Major Arcana, while the pip-cards and court-cards constitute the Minor Arcana.

Tarot decks begin to show up around Milan in the first half of the 15th century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 33-39), and spread and developed from there across Europe for several centuries. As might be expected, there were many local variations, some of which continued on and others which petered out. Eventually, certain consistent styles of decks became dominant: by the about the beginning of the 17th century, the most popular style of tarot deck in France was the Tarot de Marseille. Cartomancy, or divination by shuffling and revealing the cards, appears to have begun in the mid-to-late 18th century in France, and was popularized by the publication of Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes in 1770 (A Cultural History of the Tarot 93-95).

The system in Etteilla was not tarot-card reading as we know it today. The author Jean-Baptiste Alliette made a variation on the Tarot de Marseille (he used a piquet pack, which had the pip cards from 2 to 6 removed, plus the addition of an “Etteilla” card to represent the asker.) While Alliette was focusing on tarot for fortune-telling as a past-time, French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin  began to interpret the tarot trumps as occult symbols, and worked them into his system, claiming that they were a corrupted version of the Egyptian Book of Thoth (Egyptomania was prominent in France at the time, and would continue to be popular into the 19th century, which can be seen in developments such as Egyptian Freemasonry). De Gébelin surmised that tarot had been brought to Europe by the Romani (popularly, though sometimes pejoratively called “gypsies,” and who were believed by some to be displaced Egyptians), and the association of tarot and the Romani would continue in the popular consciousness for centuries (A Cultural History of the Tarot 102-109).

By the time Alliette began selling the Etteilla and tarot decks for fortune telling, tarot as a card game had been defunct in Paris, though still popular in other parts of Europe. Building off of the work of de Gébelin and Alliette, Éliphas Lévi Zahed revised and incorporated the symbolism of the tarot trumps into his systemic works of ceremonial magic, including Dogme et Rituel de la haute magie (1854-1856), La Clef des Grands Mystères (1861), and Histoire de la magie (1860)—the latter of which, in the English translation, would eventually be read by H. P. Lovecraft. Lévi’s system brought together medieval European systems of correspondences, the zodiac, kabbalah, and the tarot trumps (A Cultural History of the Tarot 111-117).

While Lévi allowed that tarot was useful for cartomancy, his incorporation of tarot into a system of magic opened up the tarot to be used in other magical operations—and the alterations made in the tarot decks of Lévi, Attelier, and other popularizers like Papus (Gérard Anaclet Vincent Encausse) in the correspondences, numbering, and iconography of the trump cards encouraged others to make further alterations. There were many different occultists throughout Europe who developed the tarot as a means of divination or incorporated it into their occult philosophy—including Helena Blavatasky—but to focus on the path that leads to Lovecraftian tarots, the work of Lévi & co. was particularly influential on a small a group of English ceremonial magicians known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (A Cultural History of the Tarot 126-136; A History of the Occult Tarot 76-90).

One of the founders of this society, Samuel Lidell Macgregor Mathers, published The Tarot: Its Occult Singification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play (1888) the same year that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came into existenc. The order was organized along the lines of a Freemason lodge (albeit accepting both men and women) with three degrees of initiation, and the system they used was based on a Cipher Manuscript, and included instruction on using the tarot for magical operations. While drawing heavily on Attellier, Lévi, & Papus and still recognizably based on the Tarot of Marseille, the Cipher Manuscript again made several changes in the associations & numbering of the trumps. Among the initiates of the order were Arthur Machen and his friend Arthur Edward Waite, Algernonon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, William Butler Yeats, and William Sharp; a good book on some of these is Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Years, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune by Susan Johnston Graf. Though the Order was relatively small, it had an outsized influence on contemporary occultism. The system of ceremonial magic that the Cipher Manuscript and related teachings described, and the tarot deck needed for it, would inform the decks and systems of its initiates (A History of the Occult Tarot 91-113).

In particular, in 1909 Arthur Edward Waite designed a deck, with art provided by Pamela Colman Smith (also known as “Pixie”). Waite based his iconography and numbering on the Order’s, with a few changes, but Smith apparently took inspiration from a 15th century tarot called the “Sola-Busca” deck. Unlike most tarot decks which left the pip cards relatively plain, this deck included full illustrations for all cards, which Pixie followed in her deck. The resulting deck, which was published by the Rider and is popularly (if inaccurately) known as the Rider-Waite tarot has become the most popular and influential tarot deck of the last century, with its suits (Wands, Pentacles, Cups, Swords), trump names and numbering, and iconography becoming iconic (A Cultural History of the Tarot 144-148, A History of the Occult Tarot 127-141).

The Waite-Smith tarot deck was widely published after World War II, and like ouija boards and other aspects of spiritualism and occultism found a new generation of adherents during the New Age movement in the 1970s. Yet before that happened, tarot was already a part of Lovecraftian occultism.

“Aleister Crowley is a now-elderly Englishman who has dabbled in this sort of thing since his Oxford days. He is, really, of course, a sort of maniac or degenerate despite his tremendous mystical scholarship. He has organised secret groups of repulsive Satanic & phallic worship in many places in Europe & Asia, & has been quietly kicked out of a dozen countries. Sooner or later the US. (he is now [in] N.Y.) will probably deport him—which will be bad luck for him, since England will probably put him in jail when he is sent home. T. Everett Harré—whom I have met & whom Long knows well—has seen quite a bit of Crolwey, & thinks he is about the most loathsome & sinister skunk at large. And when a Rabelaisian soul like Harré (who is never sober!) thinks that of anybody, the person must be a pretty bad egg indeed! Crowley is the compiler of the fairly well-known “Oxford Book of Mystical verse”, & a standard writer on occult subjects. the story of Wakefield’s which brings him in (under another name, of course) is in the collection “They Return at Evening,” which I’ll lend you if you like.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 5 April 1935,
Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 420-421

Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and expanded and changed its teachings in his subsequent magickal organizations the Argentum Astrum (A∴A∴) and the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.); as part of his occult publications he developed his own variant of the tarot deck, often called the Thoth deck (A Cultural History of the Tarot 137-142, A History of the Occult Tarot 142-156). Crowley’s final secretary and acolyte at the time of his death was a young man named Kenneth Grant, who went on to continute to develop and practice Crowley’s magickal system of Thelema, and to publish his own exegesis of the Golden Dawn-derived system. What sets Grant apart from from Crowley is that he directly incorporated fictional elements from the work of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft into his system in books like The Magical Revival (1972) and eventually inspired artist-occultist Linda Falorio to create the Shadow Tarot (A History of the Occult Tarot 310-311). Other occultist such as Nema Andahadna also used tarot in their Crowley-derived magickal systems. As an example of what this looks like:

One of Crowley’s methods of counter-checking a name or a number was by reducing it to a single number and adding together its component digits, referring the result to a Tarot Key. For example, if a spirit gave as its number 761, this owuld be checked thus: 7 + 6 + 1 = XIV, the Tarot Key entiled Art; and if the symbols and attributions of this Key were consant with the meaning of the number itself, it offered good ground for assuming that a bona fide spirt had responded to the invocation; but further tests would be necessary if doubt remained. Not only can the disembodied spirit of dead or sleeping people impersonate spirits and work evil by such means, but—which is infinitely more dangerous—extracosmic entities can masquerade as spirits and, if they are not banished before they can gain a foothold in the consciousness of he who inoked them, obsession follows. Austin Spare is the authority on their control; Lovecraft, on the devasation they leave in their wake when they are let loose upon the earth.
—Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival 110

Grant wasn’t the only magician playing with Lovecraftian occultism, but he was the most prominent working within a syncretic system that incorporated tarot as part of its magical workings, as opposed to works like the George Hay-edited The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978), which was styled on the medieval European grimoire tradition…which, of course, did not use the tarot in an occult context because playing cards and tarot cards weren’t introduced until the late medieval period, and then just for gaming. Those interested in a history of Lovecraftian occultism in general are encouraged to pick up The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms & John Wisdom Gonce III.

The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot

By the 1990s, would-be occultists could find mass-market paperback copies of the Simon Necronomicon and copies of the Waite-Smith deck in the New Ages shelves of their local bookstore, but there wasn’t really a Lovecraft-specific deck until David Wynn and Daryl Hutchinson came together to publish The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot (Mythos Books LLC, 1997/2002) in two limited editions, which now command high prices on the secondary market. This tarot largely follows the format of the Waite-Smith tarot in geneal form: there are 22 trumps, and the other cards are numbered in descending order and divided into four suits (Man, Artifacts, Tomes, and Sites), with each card depicting something from Lovecraft’s stories. The manual (by Eric C. Friedman) gives readings and a suggested spread, not disimilar from various Attellier-derived popular fortune-telling books. As a deck, it’s obviously intended as a bit of fun without any of the Waite-Smith style symbolism, opting instead for sepia-toned images, and is a product of New Age occultism married to popular culture—but still representing a lot of work!


The H. R. Giger Tarot

Swiss artist H. R. Giger named two of his art collections Necronomicon, and although is particular subjects took little inspiration from Lovecraft, that connection between their work has continued (as discussed in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins). In 1992, the occultist Akron adapted 22 of Giger’s famous paintings into Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt, which was released as the H. R. Giger Tarot in English. These cards consist of only the trumps/Major Arcana, as well as a fold-out poster for the spread and a 224-page booklet (in the English edition, the German hardback is 408 pages) on potential spreads and interpretations of the cards. Akron had previously worked on The Crowley Tarot (1995), and shows the influence of Kenneth Grant in designating this a “shadow tarot,” but the purpose is more mystical than magical, less New Age in the sense of occult fun-and-games and more intended as a serious (and very cool-looking) tool for personal introspection and spiritual growth.

The Necronomicon Tarot

In the mid-2000s occult publisher Llewellyn published the “Necronomicon Series” by Donald Tyson, a series of pop-occult books with a Lovecraftian theme, including Tyson’s novel Alhazred: The Author of the Necronomicon (2006), a specious magical biography of Lovecraft, some ersatz grimoires, and in collaboration with artist Anne Stokes a tarot deck and manual: the Necronomicon Tarot (2007). This is a full tarot of 22 trumps and four suits (Discs, Cups, Wands, and Swords). While Stokes’ artwork stands out as effective and creative, this is really little more than a re-skin of the Waite-Smith tarot; so that even though the Minor Arcana all bear full illustrations, the system of planetary and elemental correspondences, the suggested readings, etc. are all basically a version of Arthur Edward Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911). Any tarot-reader already familiar with other systems can pretty much pick this deck up and use it. In this, Tyson’s tarot is totally in keeping with the rest of his work on the Necronomicon Series: pure pop-occultism.

The Dark Grimoire Tarot

By this point it was easier than ever before for basically anyone to print their own tarot, in a consistent size and relatively high quality. Which is why in 2008 the The Dark Grimoire Tarot by Michele Penko and Giovani Pelosini waspublished by Lo Scarabeo in Italy. Despite the unassuming English name, this is in fact a multi-lingual deck and three of the alternate titles are Tarocchi del Necronomicon, Tarot del Necronomicon, and Tarot du Necronomicon, just in case you had any doubts what they were about. This is quite literally just the Waite-Smith deck with different art; all the trumps and suits are the same. The book of instructions is split into six languages, and so only amounts to twelve pages for the English text, offering a very simple pentagram-inspired spread and some concise interpretations. If you don’t already know how to interpret tarot cards, this book won’t give you much to go on—but other than that, it isn’t really very different from the Necronomicon Tarot, and both are pretty much just tarot decks as product, rather than a showcase for art or a legitimate attempt at a useful occult tool.


The Book of Azathoth Tarot

The 18th century French occultists declared the tarot deck the Book of Thoth, a legendary tome of magical lore which was encoded into the trumps of the deck; in this postmodern world, an occultist called Nemo has reworked this material into the Book of Azathoth Tarot. The first edition of these cards in 2012 had a really ugly back, but the subsequent edition has a much nicer design. Compared to the previous examples, this might be considered the most “serious” of the Lovecraftian tarots to date. It is a full tarot strongly inspired by the Waite-Smith tarot deck, right down to the same suits and trump names and numbers, and even moreso as it incorporates Hebrew letters, astrological symbols, and Zodiac signs into the iconography, and is obviously closely following some of Smith’s iconic designs, with a Mythos twist.

Which kind of works in its favor, oddly enough. The artwork has a design like medieval woodcuts, with a stark but unifrom yellow-and-black color scheme that gives a very clean appearance, and combined with the more classic design gives the deck a more traditional and authentic feel, even though the materials are all completely contemporary. The guidebook (2020) that goes with the deck is sold separately, hardbound and in full color. It is, again, very traditional. This is closer to what a Lovecraft tarot might have looked like if it was made during his own lifetime than anything else yet produced.


Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set

Released in 2019 with art by Jacob Walker, the Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set is possibly the ipsissimus of cheap, lazy, and uninspired Lovecraftian reskins of the Waite-Smith tarot. While some of the art isn’t bad and this is a full 78-card deck, that’s damning with faint praise. In the era of cheap printing as sales move away from brick-and-mortar locations and to online marketplaces, this is also the future of Lovecraftian tarot. Anybody with enough raw art and a minimum of design skill can throw together a tarot deck…and have! You can buy the Cthulhu Dark Arts Tarot, Old Whispers Tarot, and the Forbidden Tarot, and no doubt more that I haven’t run across yet.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we might expect that a lot of these tarots will fail commercially, and sink out of sight—maybe to reappear on auction websites at fabulous prices, maybe to be remaindered or gather dust at used bookstores and in basements and attics. But with the barrier for entry so low, we might also see a slew of these cheap decks published for the considerable future. While it is ridiculous to assume that any commercial tarot deck is made without an eye toward profit, the lack of care evident in some of today’s tarot decks illustrates how far we’ve come from the roots of the occult tarot, and how seriously folks like Gébelin, Alliette, Éliphas Lévi, Mathers, and Crowley took them. Tarot really has become just a toy for most people.


The Eldritch Tarot

Which brings us to The Eldritch Tarot by Sara Bardi, successfully crowdfunded and published in 2021. Bardi is an Italian artist, perhaps best known for her webcomic Lovely Lovecraft. The Eldritch Tarot comes with no manual, no key to interpretation, but what it does come with is a lot of heart. The occult DNA of the Waite-Smith tarot deck is still there in the names and numbers of the Major Arcana, but that’s largely where it ends. The four suits are denoted by symbols for The Call of Cthulhu (tentacle), Under the Pyramids (broken chalice), The Dunwich Horror (wavy dagger), and At the Mountains of Madness (the pentagram version of the Elder Sign), and every one of the 78 cards features art in Bardi’s characteristic style.

This is closer to the H. P. Lovecraft Tarot than anything else, but there are no pretenses to occultism in Bardi’s tarot. This is the kind of deck where, if you want to dig out the rules for a tarot trick-taking game, you could sit down at a convention and play a couple hands with friends and have a good time. Or if you want to lay out a spread and tell some fortunes, look up the guidelines on the internet or pick up a cheap book from the library. This is a deck that is mostly shorn of tradition, but the art is clean, detailed, and maybe best of all relevant: this is a deck made by a Lovecraft fan, for Lovecraft fans.


Lovecraft and Tarot

Meaningless spotted pasteboards […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 3 Feb 1932, Letters to James F. Morton 294

It’s not clear if H. P. Lovecraft ever saw a tarot deck; I’ve yet to find any direct mention of tarot or cartomancy in his published letters or essays. This isn’t vastly surprising: the global popularity in tarot didn’t start to rise until after World War II, long after he was dead; Lovecraft was not given to esoteric knowledge of card games; and his few occult-minded friends such as E. Hoffmann Price and William Lumley do not appear to have had any knowledge of tarot, or at least none is mentioned.

At the same time, we can be fairly certain that Lovecraft was aware that tarot existed, and that cartomancy was a form of divination. Lovecraft had read Lévi’s History of Magic (translated by A. E. Waite), with its references to the tarot; he had also read fictional works like The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (translated by Madge Pemberton), which includes its tarot scene. So it is reasonable to assume that Lovecraft was at least vaguely aware of tarot, its purported occult history, and their use in both games and divination. Certainly, Lovecraft may have been thinking of tarot when he wrote:

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”

Yet this could also have meant palm-reading, or some other form of divination. Lovecraft may have known little solid about tarot until fairly late in life: there is no direct reference to tarot in his early articles attacking astrology, or his outline for The Cancer of Superstition, a book he had planned to write for Harry Houdini, but which was scuttled by the magician’s death. Weird Tales did advertise books of cartomancy, but most of these would have used a standard playing card deck, not tarot.


Weird Tales May 1935

It is doubtful that Lovecraft would have any strong belief in either the occult history of the tarot, and no belief at all in its value in divination. He was, as the he mentioned to fan Nils Frome in 1937, not a believer in fortune-telling; too much the mechanist materialist. Nor, for all that he read up somewhat on occultism, does Lovecraft appear to have been generally aware of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or Crowley’s system of Thelema—which is understandable; Lovecraft was no more an occultist than he was a card player.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

West of Innsmouth: A Cthulhu Western (2021) by Kikuchi Hideyuki (菊地 秀行)

I had long thought I wanted to crate an authentic Western. […] Japan has a similar genre in the jidai shōsetsu (historical samural novels), but their high point, the sword duel, can take such a huge variety of shapes that the wirten word can easily match movies when it comes to tension. […] Even so, I never gave up that dream of writing a Western. I wanted to capture the blood-pounding, muscle-flexing excitement I’d felt as a kid watching famous Westerns in novel form.
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), “Afterward” in West of Innsmouth 211

Kikuchi Hideyuki (菊地 秀行) may be one of the most prolific and original Japanese authors of Cthulhu Mythos fiction. Unfortunately, like a lot of the popular fiction created for Japan, almost none of it is translated for English-speaking audiences. Fans of anime may recognize him as the author behind the series of Vampire Hunter D novels, or the mind behind Wicked City and Demon City Shinjuku which have become classics of horror anime films and Original Video Animation.


In 2015, his novel Jashin Kettō-den (Legend of the Duel of Evil Gods) was published, a Weird Western which sees a a ninja and a bounty hunter mixed up in a bit of occult business with the Esoteric Order of Dagon…and along the way they pass through Dodge City and Tombstone, and places in between. In 2021 the novel, translated by Jim Rion, was published by Kurodahan Press, who have also published many other Mythos works, such as Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健).

Kikuchi Hideyuki has done his homework, and if some of that research was done reading classic Westerns, it still shows. This is not an historical samurai epic in an exotic locale; this is a post-Unforgiven Western, gritty and realistic in parts, with an eye for detail…but with allowances for a few specific callbacks to stories and details that Western fans would recognize. For example, in real life Wyatt Earp probably did not carry a Buntline special—but he does here, and the character is none the worse for.

While the addition of a ninja to a Western milieu may seem odd—or perhaps an episode out of the 1970s Kung Fu television series—there’s no anachronism involved. Japan has had contact with North and South America for centuries, and while that contact was lessened during the isolationist sokaku period, by the 1870s gunboat diplomacy had re-established trade and travel, and some Japanese were among the many Asian peoples that immigrated to North America. A more serious and interesting question is the addition of weird elements.

Iä! Iä! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh
Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl western!
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), “Afterward” in West of Innsmouth 214

Does West of Innsmouth actually work as a novel? As a weird western, it plays a balancing act between the realistic and the fantastic. Supernatural entities appear, but many of them are perfectly susceptible to a .45 caliber bullet between the eyes or through the heart. The essential plot—what is going and and why the characters do what they do—is actually very solid, with only one quibble: the Japanese co-protagonist is hunting four unusual characters because they killed his brother in Japan at the orders of the Marshes of Innsmouth…but the same characters are being hunted by the American co-protagonist who is working for the Esoteric Order of Dagon. Not an irreconcilable plot hole, but it feels like this is a detail that was overlooked. 

Where the narrative sometimes trips is the extraneous weirdness that tends to crop up along the way. The reader doesn’t need (or get) an explanation for everything, but this ends up being a much more magical Wild West than most readers may be used to, somewhat similar Edward M. Erdelac’s Mekabah Rider series, and there’s perhaps a bit too much of an element of chance in the plot than strictly necessary; too many coincidences, and perhaps too many odd elements that show up briefly and unnecessarily. For example, one antagonist turns out to have learned muay boran from a Thai martial artist in St. Louis…and what are the odds of that?

The Cthulhu Mythos elements are ultimately handled in a very thematic way, with strong visual images for given scenes and repeated motifs that are consistent and have some very effective scenes of horror, but the lore itself handled lightly. The name of Cthulhu is thrown around more often, there is more open talk of spells and incantations, but no one breaks out a Necronomicon or starts giving detailed geneaologies of Innsmouth families; nor does anyone go insane from the revelations. The odd result is that the use of Mythos elements is somewhat restrained, but also much more openly “magical” than you might expect.

In the afterward, Kikuchi Hideyuki admits The Kouga Ninja Scrolls as an inspiration, and you can see some definite thematic resonance there. This is a novel which I think would almost benefit from being longer, or perhaps serialized as a few novellas. The pacing is almost too quick, the challenges all end up being rather short and bloody…but then, this is the Old West, and gunfights often don’t last more than the end of a paragraph, nor should they.

“I can’t figure women for the life of me,” I said. “They give me more fright than Cthulhu himself, maybe.”
—Kikuchi Hideyuki (trans. Jim Rion), West of Innsmouth 194

Sexism and racism were realities in the American Old West, but with today’s audiences a certain balance has to be maintained. So in contemporary Western cinema and literature it’s a fine line between accuracy to the period and necessity to the plot. West of Innsmouth does fairly well overall; the various Native American characters depicted are generally antagonistic, but they aren’t stepping straight out of Hollywood Westerns of the 1950s, 60s, or 70s (although ironically given Hollywood’s penchant for redface, a couple of times Asian characters are mistaken for Native Americans in the novel.) Black characters are mostly absent, and figure very little into events, but aren’t depicted as caricatures. There are several women supporting characters, including a brief but memorable cameo by Belle Starr. Overall, it is a balancing act, and I would say Kikuchi Hideyuki leans on the side of being less prone to putting old-timey racism in his characters’ mouths, although keeps enough prejudice in the story to demonstrate that yet, it was present in the Old West.

There are few enough Weird Westerns that deal with the Cthulhu Mythos, and compared to works like “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh, or Weird Trails (2004)West of Innsmouth is certainly more ambitious than most. As a novel it compares favorably with works like Cthulhu Armageddon: A Post Apocalypse Western (2016) by C. T. Phipps, and if it is not perfect, it is never boring, nor does it devolve into white hats versus black hats. Overall, it’s fair to say that Kikuchi Hideyuki succeeded in writing a real western.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” (2021) by Molly Tanzer

 I can see it a little when I make the Voorish sign or blow the powder of Ibn Ghazi at it, and it is near like them at May-Eve on the Hill.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Libido sciendi is the desire to know; the pull that drives people to squint through keyholes, pry up rocks and flagstones, to pick the lock on your sister’s diary. It is a very Lovecraftian drive, and one that applies equally well to the investigators of a Cthulhu Mythos story and to many readers themselves. How many young men and women have sat down to make lists of strange titles in Lovecraft’s stories, tracked hints between stories, read dead men’s letters, searched online to ferret out connections? It is not too much to say that generations have persisted in plumbing the Lovecraftian debts…and yet exciting would it be to find one more mystery to uncover?

Molly Tanzer wants readers to know that “this story is based on a true experience of mine. I really did have the thought, Oh, I loved that story, ‘In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi,’ when I picked up that card in Arkham Horror, years agao now. But after many, many deep Googles and queries to editors whom I thought might have published it later, I was forced to conclude that no such story exists. Last year, I picked up that card again in the game, and after doing yet another deep dive into the annals of the internet, I thought to myself, ‘I should just write it, then.”
—epigraph to “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Mar/Apr 2021), 126

If you want to get technical about it, Molly Tanzer is playing a very old game in this story. A person in the real world finds a hint that something in Lovecraft’s fiction might be real. Lovecraft would mention his friend Clark Ashton Smith among the artists of the Mythos, August Derleth put copies of Arkham House’s Lovecraft books on the same shelf as the Necronomicon in some of his stories, Joanna Russ had a fan run across a genuine Lovecraftian horror in “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket—But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!“, Robert Bloch in Strange Eons has someone run across an original Pickman painting. The fun of the game is guessing where the dividing line is—how much of what Lovecraft wrote is real? How did he know?

Tanzer teases the reader a better than most. The themes are play are so hoary and well-worn they’re like an old ratty pair of slippers, so easy and comfortable to slip into you almost wouldn’t wear anything else. The protagonist knows that the set-up has to be fake, recognizes the theatricality of it, even reels off the names of familiar works like The Wicker Man and Murder on the Orient Express as a knowing wink to what is about to happen—and the reader keeps reading anyway. It isn’t that Tanzer is being unoriginal, it’s just that it’s almost a ritual with readers at this point. They recognize all the signs, and appreciate the set up, but what they want…what they need…is to know the secret of the ending.

A large part of the appeal of the story will be for Lovecraftian enthusiasts. The nameless protagonist is not explicitly Molly Tanzer herself, but in the sense of “write what you know,” enough of Tanzer is stamped on the character’s backstory to lend verisimilitude. It gives room for little in-jokes. When Tanzer writes:

And it was actually S. T. Joshi who first called me a minor Lovecraftian author, so the scales balance out on that one. I think he was trying to hurt my feelings, but there’s no point to being offended by the truth.
—Molly Tanzer, “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” in
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Mar/Apr 2021), 140

S. T. Joshi is a noted Lovecraft scholar, biographer, writer, and critic who is somewhat famous for being acerbic. If he doesn’t like something, Joshi makes no bones about it. For fans of Lovecraftian fiction, two sentences is enough to invoke the image of S. T. damning someone with faint praise. This isn’t so much a jibe at the Old Man of Lovecraft Studies so much as a wink-and-a-nod at the realities; whether or not Joshi actually said something like this to Tanzer is less important than this is something he might well say. Lovecraft fans familiar with Joshi will recognize the hint; like many real-life people who found fictional versions of themselves appearing in Lovecraftian stories, Joshi has crossed that threshold a few times—most notably in the final issue of Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows graphic novel Providence.

There is a lot to like about the story. Tanzer has a great deal of skill in creating convincing snippets of authentic-sounding antique prose, and an awareness of how language and tone reveal little slip-ups when you’re trying to make a text sound old to an audience. The nested narrative structure is a complicated one, the kind of thing Lovecraft would use to good effect in stories like “The Dunwich Horror,” “The Call of Cthulhu,” and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. At one point, I thought one of the key nested episodes was paraphrasing one of the tales of the Scheherazade—but no, it was something of Tanzer’s own design, though with a hint of the folktale about it.

There is a lot that is Lovecraftian about “In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi,” but there are no tentacles or blasphemous names, no Necronomicons, and the gnosis that reader and unnamed protagonist seek is, in the end, not another nugget of Mythos lore. This is not a locked-room mystery where you guess who the killer is on page three, nor a standard Cthulhu yarn where you’re waiting for the cultists in the funny robes and wavy daggers to come out of the literary woodwork. But if the reader is willing to suspend their disbelief a little, and enjoy the ride, they may find find it worth the journey.

“In the Garden of Ibn Ghazi” (2021) by Molly Tanzer was first published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (Mar/Apr 2021).

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Trolling Lovecraft (2021) by V. McAfee

As for seriously-written books on dark, occult, & supernatural themes—in all truth, they don’t amount to much. That is why it’s more fun to invent mythical works like the Necronomicon & Book of Eibon. The magical lore which superstitious people really believed, & which trickled down to the Middle Ages from antiquity, was really nothing more than a lot of childish invocations & formulae for raising daemons &c., plus systems of speculation as dry as the orthodox philosophies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 28 July 1926, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 378

People have always believed in magic, even if they haven’t always called it magic. This was rarely the kind of magic we might associate with fantasy fiction today; practitioners generally weren’t throwing fireballs. The form and goals of magic have always changed to match the syntax of the era. In ancient Rome, someone might scratch a curse on a tablet of lead, or have a diviner root around in entrails to answer a personal question, or wear an amulet to ensure an easy childbirth. In Lovecraft’s lifetime, they might check their horoscope in the newspaper, carry a rabbit’s foot on their keychain, or let someone hypnotize them.

When most people think of “real” magic, they think less of this kind of superstition and pseudoscience, as Lovecraft would put it, and more on specific tropes of grimoires, spellcasting, magic circles, maybe witchcraft and cults as described in The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray. Ancient traditions passed down, either in oral traditions or crumbling books and manuscripts, or both. Lovecraft lived and wrote during the period called the Third Great Awakening which saw the rise of organized occultism (in the form of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, the Theosophical Society, and other groups), an increased focus on Spiritualism and other new religious movements, increased interest in ancient religions thanks to advances in archaeology, scientific interest in supernatural phenomena (as explored by the Society for Psychical Research and other groups), and wider publication of occult literature to an increasingly literate public. Owen Davies explores the magical world of Lovecraft’s era in his book A Supernatural War: Magic, Divination, and Faith during the First World War.

After World War II, magic continued to be popular. Aleister Crowley, a member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, had developed its system of ceremonial magick into an influential system of belief called Thelema. Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, among others, formulated and organized contemporary witchcraft as Wicca. Interest in psychic phenomena, Eastern spirituality, and more new religious movements increased during the 1960s. Aleister Crowley’s secretary Kenneth Grant rose to prominence by expanding the system of ceremonial magic—and incorporating in elements of Lovecraft’s fictional Mythos. Anton LeVay, who founded the Church of Satan in 1966, also worked some Lovcraftian material in. In New York City in 1977, a Necronomicon appeared that purported to be a genuine grimoire. For more on such developments, check out The History of British Magick After Crowley and The Necronomicon Files.

While some might argue that all occult literature is in some sense fiction, the development of the Lovecraftian occult was different from claims to have found an ancient magical manuscript and translated it, or to have received a communication from some spirit from “outside.” While some of it (like the Simon Necronomicon) was deliberately fraudulent, the Lovecraftian occult proved to be no different, in the end, to any material derived from traditional sources. A little weird, maybe, and consciously derived from the works of a dead pulp writer rather than some medieval magician, but for people who found defined gods as ideas, concepts, and symbols—what was the difference between a traditional goddess such as Isis and a fictional one like Shub-Niggurath? If you believed enough, and if the rituals you worked around the idea worked well enough for you—why not be a Lovecraftian magician?

This postmodern approach to magick, where prospective magicians were not restricted to traditional systems but pursued a more individual, personal, even eclectic and experiential approach has sometimes been called Chaos magick. Lovecraftian occultism has incorporated by many chaos magicians (or chaotes) into their personal mythology, most notably by Phil Hine in The Pseudonomicon. This approach has in turn inspired takes on Lovecraftian spirituality, notably When the Stars Are Right: Toward an Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality by Scott R. Jones, and Lovecraftian occultism has influenced Lovecraftian fiction.

Which is a very long prologue to begin talking about Trolling Lovecraft by V. McAfee.

I’m not really familiar with his history
enough to do that…
but I guess I could give it a shot. Like go
back to when he was a kid and haunt him
with weird bs?
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 5

McAfee’s debut novel is told from the perspective of Dyl, a working chaos magician. It is occult fiction in the sense that it follows the precepts of chaos magic, without explaining the terminology or many of the concepts. Readers who aren’t familiar with sigil-making, or how you might charge an orgone accumulator, are going to miss a few things. While I wouldn’t be surprised if McAfee was very familiar with Hine and the Pseudonomicon, the focus of the novel is not some exegesis on Lovecraftian occultism…it’s the use of chaos magic for a very specific purpose: trolling Lovecraft.

There are a lot of ways for dealing with life, the things it throws at you, and historical figures like H. P. Lovecraft. Many writers have addressed Lovecraft and his work in many ways in fiction, from reverence to revulsion, ridicule to reimagining. None of these are wrong; a writer might express their appreciation for Lovecraft by creating a fictional version of them in their story, as Robert Silverberg did in “Gilgamesh in the Outback”, or work out frustration by calling out his racism as N. K. Jemisin did in The City We Became. Chaos magic is as valid an approach as any other—and maybe as valid a goal for chaos magic as any other operation.

He took his copy of a collection of Lovecraft’s prose off the shelf and found Beyond the Wall of Sleep, one of his favorites and one of the original pieces that he was going to mess with. He read through it quickly and found it unchanged, just as Her Greatness had said. Then, Dyl pulled up a transcription on the web and found that the phrase ’empire of Tsan-Chan’ had in fact been changed to ’empire of Fiat-Nox’.
—V. McAfee, Trolling Lovecraft 67

While trolling Lovecraft is the premise of the novel, the focus is on Dyl and the consequences of his actions. Like many magicians, he’s young, male, egotistical, often horny, and perpetually getting himself into deeper and deeper shit through poor life choices. This is not a magical adventure in the sense that Dyl has to find an ancient grimoire bound in human skin and has to defeat Cthulhu before the evil cult can summon him into the real world; this is an extraordinarily personal journey about someone who becomes unmoored from his personal reality because he decided to troll Lovecraft…and while many other people might not believe in it, it’s real for him.

Which is what chaos magic is all about.

Trolling Lovecraft was written by V. McAfee for NaNoWriMo 2020, and a print edition was successfully funded and delivered on Kickstarter in 2021. Digital copies can be purchased at the Gate Zero shop on Etsy and Gumroad.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Editor Spotlight: Betty M. Owen & Margaret Ronan

How young is too young to read H. P. Lovecraft?

Fear and horror are universal. No matter how old—or young—the audience may be. Yet weird fiction and supernatural horror have not always been universally available. From the 1920s to the 1950s, copies of Weird Tales might expect an audience of both teens and adults. Expensive hardcopy Arkham House editions were no doubt beyond the range of most teens; and the Armed Forces Editions no doubt weren’t read by anyone below recruitment age. In the 1960s and 1970s, paperback editions of H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction were beginning to be available in bookstores, but these were mostly marketed toward a grown-up audience: Lin Carter included two Lovecraft collections among the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series.

Yet there was a younger audience for horror fiction. Not necessarily the more sexually explicit or gruesome horrors of the shudder pulps, or the sophisticated psychological horrors like Robert Bloch’s Psycho, but there was certainly a market for spooky stories—and not stories bowdlerized or dumbed down for a younger audience either.

Enter Scholastic Book Services.

Scholastic started out in the 1920s publishing educational magazines aimed at a younger audience; as the company grew and diversified, they moved into book publishing as well, aiming affordable cheap paperbacks at a school-age audience, through book clubs and mail-order catalogs. By the mid-to-late 1960s, Scholastic began to offer original anthologies of supernatural horror fiction, mostly reprints of older material, and the number of reprint editions of individual titles suggests that they found some success.

Screenshot 2021-12-14 3.31.48 PM

Betty M. Owen was a Scholastic editor whose credits include Stories of the Supernatural (1967), Nine Strange Stories (1974), Teenspell (1974), The Ghostmasters: Weird Stories by Famous Writers (1976), and StarSreak: Stories of Space (1979).

11 Great Horror Stories was the first Scholastic anthology to include a Lovecraft story, and “The Dunwich Horror” is featured prominently. Probably the first introduction to Lovecraft for many young readers.

Owen as an editor has a light touch; while she selected and arranged the contents, she had no introduction or opening remarks for the stories, so her reasoning is opaque to us. However, Lovecraft is not in bad company, front of a queue that includes Edgar Allan Poe, Bram Stoker, John Collier, and L. P. Hartley. Considering Owen would got permission from Arkham House to use “The Dunwich Horror,” and how prominent it is on the cover, we can assume that someone at Scholastic thought it was the real selling point of the book.

Among Scholastic’s associate editors was Margaret Ronan—who, before she married and took her husband’s name in 1940, was Margaret Sylvester, who as a teenager corresponded with H. P. Lovecraft. Ronan was a prolific editor and writer for Scholastic, first in their magazine Practical English and later especially prominent for her film reviews. Her work for Scholastic would include a combination of fiction anthologies and nonfiction works on macabre subjects, with titles like Astrology and Other Occult Games (1974), Hunt the Witch Down: Twelve Real Life Stories of Witches and Witchcraft (1976), Death Around the World: Strange Rites & Weird Customs (1978), House of Evil and Other Unsolved Mysteries (1978), The Dynamite Monster Hall of Fame (1978), Master of the Dead (1979), Curse of the Vampires (1979), The Dynamite Book of Ghosts and Haunted Houses (1980), and Dark and Haunted Places (1982). Yet the book Margaret Ronan is most remembered for is The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror (1971).


Ronan centers her editing on her personal experience with Lovecraft, drawing forth an anecdote from his letters to her. The portrait she paints of Lovecraft is an informed one—the reference to Fritz Leiber, Lovecraft’s Selected Letters, and the repetition of the “black magic” quote suggest that Ronan was fairly current on Arkham House releases, which was the focal point of Lovecraft studies at the time—yet it is also a sympathetic, affectionate portrait:

He looked like a writer of weird sories. He was tall and gaunt, with a bony face that could have been a composite of the faces of actors Boris Karloff and Max von Sydow. But although the face might at first seem forbidding, the eyes gave away the real man inside. They were warm and friendly, interested in everything and everybody.

The choice of stories in this book is odd. “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is one of Lovecraft’s most iconic stories, but also a fairly long novella; “The Festival” is a classic alternative to the Christmas ghost story, and “The Colour Out of Space” and “The Outsider” are among Lovecraft’s best work. “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” is an odd choice, but Ronan highlights Lovecraft’s connection with Houdini in her brief foreword to the story. “In the Walls of Eryx,” co-written with Kenneth Sterling, is very outside the norm—and “The Transition of Juan Romero” is far from Lovecraft at his best, with Ronan herself noting that it is “Short, and to the point!”

We don’t know what constraints Ronan operated under in selecting these stories, or what criteria she went by; budget for licensing the stories from Arkham House or limits on pagecount are both probable. Yet for the intended audience, this isn’t a terrible selection, and at a cost of only 75¢ was very affordable: Ballantine’s The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1971) was 95¢ for 208 pages. Any kid that got a copy was getting a good deal.

WW4Scholastic continued to publish magazines, even as they continued to expand their book sales beyond book clubs and mail-order catalogues into book fairs at schools. One of their odder offerings was Weird Worlds, a pop-culture/comic magazine edited by R. L. Stine (as Bob and Jane Stine).

Weird Worlds #4 (1980) includes among its features a reprint of “The Outsiders.” Ronan is present with articles on The Omen (1976) and UFOs; whether she had any hand in getting Lovecraft into one more Scholastic publication or not is unclear…but it would have been one more chance to give a younger audience that first taste of the Old Gent.

Children’s literature, like pulp fiction, tends to be ephemeral. Kids grow out of it, childish things are put aside. Scholastic books, generally unavailable in stores, cheaply printed and bound, and hard-used by the young readers, survive only because they were sold in such vast numbers that many still turn up at garage sales and thrift shops, and are often overlooked. These books are not, for the most part, expensive collectibles…but they did play their part in spreading Lovecraft’s legacy to a new generation.

Toward these pen friends he was unfailingingly generous—not only with what little money he had, but with his time and his encouragement. Without this encouragement, many of us would never have gone on hoping and trying to be writers.
—Margaret Ronan, The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Margaret Sylvester

Dear Miss Sylvester:

[…] Regarding the Necronomicon–I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & ….. many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit–or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another’s synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stois–so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon..& so on. This pooling of resource stents to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendary, & bibliography–though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers. ….

Yrs. most cordially & sincerely,

H. P. Lovecraft
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, 13 Jan 1934, Selected Letters 4.344-346

Margaret D. Sylvester was born in 1918, which made her fifteen years old when she wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, care of Weird Tales, in late 1933 or early 1934. We know little about her life: at the time she was living in Denver, Colorado with her parents and two younger brothers, no doubt going to school and reading pulp magazines for entertainment. She seems to have had a taste for the macabre, and like many fans that wrote to Lovecraft, found that he wrote back. While we don’t know how regular their correspondence was, Lovecraft included her on his list to mail postcards to during his travels, and on his list of correspondents in his instructions in case of decease.

That letter from 13 January 1934 may well be the first; it has something of the tone of an answer, and questions about the Necronomicon was common early on in correspondence with Lovecraft. A long passage before this discusses the witch-cult and Walpurgisnacht, with Lovecraft borrowing from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray in his answer. “The Dreams in the Witch House” had been published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, so perhaps that had precipitated the teenaged Margaret to pen a letter to him, filled with questions.

The best insight we have into Margaret Sylvester’s early correspondence with Lovecraft is in the few letters where he mentions her to others; in particular a long passage from mid-1934:

Am still shudderingly admiring the saponaceous monolith–& before I forget it, let me pass on a request for your charitable sculptorial services which I fancy you may wish to grant. A very bright young western correspondent–a damsel of precisely your own years who wrote me through W.T. & is interested in everything weird, especially art–has seen many of your drawings & the Cthulhu photograph (but not Ganesa), & has heard of your powers in clay-modelling & marionette work. Needless to say, her admiration of the Lord Ghu is boundless. Now it happens that she is herself an inveterate puppeteer, having given performances of “Dracula” & other horrors with figures made by herself; & contemplating such future triumphs as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” & “Beauty & the Beast.” Here is where you come in. Filled with respect for your fertile fancy, she will not be content till she gets a hellish clay head of your conception & workmanship for the Beast figure of “Beauty & the Beast.” Evidently she prefers a typically Barlovian nameless Thing to any conventional phiz. I’ve told her to write you direct–but if she doesn’t, & if you think the honour of representation & credit in an undoubtedly clever & probably oft-repeated marionette show would be sufficient reward for the sculptural effort, you’d better drop her a line yourself asking for mechanical particulars & further ideas. Address: Miss Margaret Sylvester, 4515 East 25th Ave., Denver, Colorado. I’d do it if I were you–since such modelling is an intrinsic pleasure. You’ll probably find this kid an interesting correspondent, too–very bright, though not a writer so far as I know. And a great admirer of your cinema hero Singor Lugosi.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 22 Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 166

“Lord Ghu” was one of Lovecraft’s nicknames for Barlow, who had taken to modeling figures in clay, including a tablet-image of Cthulhu and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. “Singor Lugosi” would be actor Bela Lugosi, whose filmography included Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Chandru the Magician (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Return of Chandru (1934).

As it happened, Barlow declined the project. However, Barlow did agree to loan “Little Maggie” his copy of Gustav Meyrinck’s The Golem, which was currently being read by Catherine Lucille Moore; one can imagine the young Margaret Sylvester’s surprise to get a package from Weird Tales author C. L. Moore in the mail one day. Margaret Sylvester would in turn forward the book to Lovecraft’s correspondent Duane W. Rimel when she was done with it.

In about May 1935, a chain letter was sent to Lovecraft—Margaret Sylvester is the name immediately before Lovecraft’s. He forwarded the chain letter, including a few judicious remarks, to Barlow for his amusement.

So you’ve had several of the chain things come, eh? I’ve seen only two so far–Bro. Hadley’s & Little Maggie’s. The latter child seems to be in the business–indeed, according to press reports it started in her town.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 275

No doubt the letters in 1935 would have included mention of her poetry:


Angelus, 1935 East Side High School Yearbook, page 135

There are some indications that Lovecraft may have recruited Margaret for the National Amateur Press Association c. 1936, but if she ever published her “credential”, it is not known where or when. No doubt the letters from 1934-1936 were filled with a mix of Lovecraft’s typical accounts of news & travel and whatever topics that the two found of interest to share and discuss…such as Margaret Sylvester’s graduation from North Side High School in Denver, Colorado, and her aims at higher education.

You missed little Maggie Sylvester by only a few days, since she set out for the metropolis on the 11th. I’m telling Leedle Meestah Stoiling to extend her a welcome. Her address is now 157 E. 57th St., N.Y.C.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 360

And little Maggie Sylvester of Denver is in New York for an art course or something–to be addressed at 157 E. 37th St.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1936, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 649

Leedle Meestah Stoiling cut the Harvard Tercentenary in order to stay longer in N Y with his parents. He tried to see little Maggie, but had to proceed to Cambridge before he could find her at home.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 363

“Leedle Meestah Stoiling” was Kenneth Sterling, another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents, with whom Lovecraft would collaborate on “In the Walls of Eryx.” It is not clear where in New York Margaret Sylvester attended art school, but her 2010 death certificate reads: “Some college credit, but no degee.” so for whatever reason she did not graduate. Perhaps she found a job; we know that in 1940 she married Frank Ronan, and took his name as Margaret Ronan. She was employed by Scholastic Publications as a critic, writer, and editor, publishing both anthologies and nonfiction books with a distinct horror bent aimed at the children/young adult market. In 1971 she edited The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, which may have been many a teen’s first introduction to Lovecraft, and there she wrote:

With his correspondents, Howard Lovecraft could relax. His letters, written in tiny, crabbed writing, are full of sly humor. Instead of a return address and a date, they could bear such headings as “Black Marsh of Gthath, Hour that the Ooze Stirs,” or “Black Cylinder Floating between Two Universes, Hour of the Burning Galaxy.” In one letter he sent to me, he refers to a description of himself given by a mutual friend: “As it happens, several points in Mr. Sterling’s word-picture are misleading. It is out of my right, not left shoulder that the ropy tentacles grow. What grows out of the left shoulder is one of my four eyeless heads. This head is not to be confused with the one growing out of my right elbow (the one with the green fangs).”
Margaret Ronan, “A Word to the Reader”

An extract from a single letter to Margaret Sylvester (13 January 1934) was published in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters IV. Arthur S. Koki obviously contacted Margaret Ronan, because he cites and quotes from several of her letters in his 1962 M.A. thesis “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings.” Most of these are fairly small and give little of the flavor of their correspondence, but two fragments stand out, the first on the death of Robert E. Howard (which occurred on 11 June 1936) and the second on the issue of marriage:

I doubt whether there was any definite cause aside from Mrs. Howard’s approaching death. As I see it, it was simply the disastrous combination of a certain kind of temperament with one sharp blow. Probably it would never have occurred if good old Two-Gun hadn’t been watching sleepless by his mother’s bedside for endless weeks. He was nervously & physically exhausted by those weeks of overwork, sleeplessness & tension–brooding deeply (as shown by poems like ‘The Tempter’) even though putting up a brave front to the outside world. Then came despair–& the consciousness that the fight for his mother’s life was hopeless. With no energy to resist the shock–no fund of healthy life-clinging, nerve-twisting strain–poor REH reacted in what must have seemed the shortest & simplest way. And what a damned shame! But of course I suppose general temperament was a factor. Despite his violent, assertive contempt for the “artistic attitude,” Two-Gun was essentially of the neurotic aesthetic type–that is, a person filled with imaginative concepts of certain conditions unrelated to reality which he would like to see around him, & correspondingly resentful of the pressure of the actual world.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, October 1936, Koki 298-299

I do not regard marriage as a social superfluity, but believe it has extreme stabilizing value in the organization of a state Its advantages are numerous & varied–& are indeed so apparent to the unbiased anthropologist that even Soviet Russia (where no traditional institution is kept up for tradition’s sake alone) is beginning to urge its systematic maintenance & more faithful & universal practice.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, n.d. (Jan 1937?), Koki 212

Presumably, most of the surviving letters from Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester are in private hands. It is known that there are three letters at the John Hay Library, including the full 13 January 1934 letter that is excerpted in the Selected Letters. Also included is a letter believed to date from February 1937—one of the last letters that Lovecraft would write—with the address given as “Cave of the Crumbling Bones.” A copy of this letter was in the collection of actor Christopher Lee, who brought it out during the episode “Demons” on the series 100 Years of Horror (1996).

We can only speculate how much the correspondence with Lovecraft shaped a young Margaret Sylvester’s life. No doubt she was already on her macabre path, but no doubt too that he gave her encouragement to pursue those interests.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.