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Editor Spotlight: Interview with Erica Ciko Campbell and Desmond Rhae Harris of Starward Shadows Quarterly

We’re interested in exploring the wicked, strange places that walk the line between reality and nightmare—the alien, the absurd, and above all else, the weird.—Starward Shadows Quarterly Submissions page

In order for more diverse voices in cosmic horror, weird fiction, and Lovecraftian fiction to be published, there needs to be venues to publish those new voices. Starward Shadows Quarterly published their first issue in Fall 2021. Editor-in-Chief Erica Ciko Campbell and Associate Editor/Designer & Illustrator Desmond Rhae Harris have brought their own aesthetic and appreciation for weird fiction, sword & sorcery, fantasy, & science fiction to their endeavor, and have been kind enough to answer a few questions.

How did you get into H. P. Lovecraft and cosmic horror?

Erica Ciko Campbell: I actually started writing what I would consider very “soft” cosmic horror all the way back when I was 12 with other kids on roleplay forums online. I didn’t even realize it fell into the genre at the time, but I gravitated towards themes of the insignificance of mankind in a vast and chaotic multiverse, and my characters were almost always aliens. Since I felt like an outsider all my life, it may sound cliché, but I was really just writing about what I felt like inside—but on a cosmic scale.

As far as my introduction the immortal master of cosmic horror himself: In 10th grade, I was “loaned” a copy of The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, a collection of many of Lovecraft’s greatest stories such as “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Haunter of the Dark.” From the moment I opened it for the very first time, I was awestruck. For the first time in my life, I’d encountered someone who wrote stuff that touched on the same themes I was interested in. I’m pretty sure I read the entire thing in a couple of afternoons, in those little storage cubbies beneath the desks so the teachers wouldn’t catch me during class. From then on, I always said that Lovecraft was my favorite author of all time and space.

Desmond Rhae Harris: I actually first heard of H. P. Lovecraft when I was a teenager and saw him referenced in a “Necronomicon” that somehow made its way into the occult section in a bookstore. I cracked it open and the descriptions of Nyarlathotep sparked a strong interest in the real stories from Lovecraft himself.

…And, since my earliest memories, I stared up into the black nighttime shadows at the treeline and lost myself in the sight of the starry sky or the moon anytime I got the chance. The pale taste of space that you can get from Earth filled my guts with a deep hollowness at the uncertainty of what was out there and where everything I knew stood in comparison to the rest of the universe. It terrified me at times, so the later discovery of cosmic horror as experienced by others was extremely cathartic and held a very strong draw.

Do you feel that your gender and sexuality have shaped your understanding of Lovecraft and your approach to Lovecraftian fiction?

DRH: I do feel that way: my confusion about my sexuality and identity when I was younger made me notice how narrow of a range of demographics appeared in works from authors like Lovecraft. This struggle to find an ideal character to identify with led me to seek out more representation in literature later on.

There are so many people at all age ranges who might be more able to accept themselves for who they are if they can see demonstrations of people like them finding their place in the world. So, while I still read and enjoy H. P. Lovecraft’s work, I am acutely aware of which demographics he pays attention to (or doesn’t) and how he portrays them. And, I look for opportunities to be more inclusive while still preserving the essence of cosmic horror that Lovecraft gave us—after all, the broader the lens through which we view cosmic horror, the more complex and astonishing it can be.

ECC: When I write, I usually don’t put major emphasis on gender, orientation, etc. unless it’s a key point in the story. So I end up with a lot of Lovecraftian stories/cosmic horror with LGBTQ+ and BIPOC characters, but I wouldn’t say I make any special effort to do this: I just enjoy writing these types of characters and feel that I (and also, inadvertently, my audience) can identify with them more.

I can’t help but feel a bit excited to live in a time when every single character no longer reads as the exact same thirty-something white guy. Even as a kid I was kind of critical of this element of Lovecraft’s stories and noticed the lack of diversity: and this was before it was a hot button issue on the internet. To be blunt, I find it boring. So I would say that as an editor, I’m especially excited to see Lovecraftian submissions from female/LGBTQ/BIPOC authors, featuring characters that fall into these demographics as well (If you want a great example, you should check out The Book of Fthagn by Jamie Lackey in our first issue.) That’s not to say that I’ll pass over a story just because the author doesn’t fall into one of these demographics, of course.

What made you want to create your own ezine for cosmic horror?

ECC: I’ve always been a “lone wolf” and liked doing my own thing. If I don’t like the way other people do things, I start my own project instead. There aren’t many magazines out there publishing the same type of stuff that we intend to: New Weird, S&S, and Cyberpunk don’t often cross paths in the same publication, at least as far as I’ve seen. I wanted to create a magazine that contains the exact mix of stories that I’ve always wanted to read, because there weren’t any.

Also, I spent so much time submitting stories to magazines over the past few years that I started to wonder what it felt like to run one. I think it’s really easy for authors to put a lot of pressure on editors and to judge them (I know I’m guilty of it myself)—so I figured the best way to get a true understanding of what goes on “on the inside” was to start my own magazine and see with my own eyes.

I worked for two other magazines before starting SSQ, but I’ve never been good at taking instructions from others. I quit Novel Noctule because of this. I still read for Cosmic Roots and Eldritch Shores sometimes, but I’m not involved in the internal workings of the editorial process at all, so it’s a totally different experience.

DRH: The most concise way that I can put it is: inspiration. Whenever I look at other ezines, I enjoy them for what they are but they also spark all kinds of ideas. What I could do differently, what I could explore next, what doors I could open, what unseen groups I could highlight. In the end, I can only tolerate so much inspiration before I have to make something out of it.

What do you want to achieve with Starward Shadows Quarterly?

ECC: This one is actually pretty simple: I want to create a place where readers can go for a while where they don’t really have to think about the problems of Earth, and where they can feel free to explore hidden worlds and fantastical ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise thought of. I guess you could call it a sanctuary for all true lovers of darkness, where they don’t need to feel choked by the chains of society, and both dreams and delusions have new meaning. That’s not to say that we’ll be avoiding Earth-based stories entirely. With ones like Angel Teeth, you can’t help but stare the ugliness of our human reality dead in the eyes and smile at it.

DRH: I want people of all types to feel welcomed by every issue that we publish. I want to seek out diamonds in the rough that might otherwise have gone unpublished because of either a lack of credentials or a “touchy” demographic, because I know how it feels to be glossed over.

Aside from Lovecraft, other thematic inspirations cited for Starward Shadows Quarterly include J. R. R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard. How do you handle the historical racism and colonialist tropes inherent in fantasy and sword & sorcery?

DRH: This is a tricky topic. The best I can explain it is that we always look for ways to bring fresh, modern insight on those topics, and we deliberately seek out authors who provide that. If a story doesn’t have a new, enlightened viewpoint that shatters racism and colonialism and instead falls back on addressing those grief-ridden topics in the same, tired, old ways, then we simply won’t publish the story—no matter how good it is otherwise. It isn’t enough for something to be “not that problematic.” It needs to actively counteract the social impact that previous authors have had in these difficult areas in order for us to accept it.

ECC: Like Desmond said, this is a tricky question. Personally, I believe it’s possible to write stories in both these genres that avoid these tropes entirely. In these genres there’s always going to be “the oppressed,” and then you’re going to have “the oppressors”, or you wouldn’t have much of a story: But in my opinion, the old archetypes don’t have to be carved in stone. Stories can be written from different perspectives that were unheard of back in the old days. The background characters of the past can become the heroes (or, if I’m writing it, the anti-heroes) of the future. Even if you tear down the metaphorical statues built by the founders that are tainted with archaic viewpoints and toxic worldviews, you’re left with some pretty good building blocks. It’s up to us to decide what to do with them.

Do you feel writers like Lovecraft, Tolkien, & Howard still resonate with contemporary audiences?

ECC: Oh yes, definitely. In certain corners of the internet, it seems like there’s a subset of people that latch onto one of these authors and worship them almost religiously. Everything they write seems to be an emulation. I think that thanks to mass-printed paperbacks and the unprecedented ability of the internet to spread weird fiction far and wide, these guys have more fans than ever. And many of them don’t even know or care about what the authors were like as people, and get swept away by “fandoms.”

For example, there are tons of people who aren’t aware of Lovecraft’s problematic outlook/history at all. Kind of hard to miss, if you paid attention to the stories… But perhaps they haven’t read them all. Either that, or they choose to ignore them because A) they don’t care or B) they feel the art is the only thing that matters.

On a purely thematic basis, all controversy aside: fads may come and go in the literary world, and the favor of society may shift, but the true masters will reign forever. And even if their names were erased from history, they inspired so many countless authors that they’re burned into the literary world for as long as it exists.

DRH: Absolutely! Classics are classics, after all. And, while our values as a society might have shifted over the course of time, I see no reason to throw the baby out with the bathwater, so to speak: I feel that we should always look for areas where we could do better, but always maintain respect for those who paved the way for us and continue to harvest inspiration from their skills so that we can give new values a timeless voice.

In fact, it’s imperative that we bridge the gap between “old and new” speculative fiction by blending modern insights with creativity and intricacy that has already withstood the test of time. By doing so, we might bridge the gap between different readers as well, and help them understand each other better.

Do you think it is important for weird fiction and fantasy to escape the shadow of Lovecraft & Tolkien? Do you think that is even possible?

DRH: One could argue that, by standing on the shoulders of giants, they might leap to a new mountain entirely—but they’re still highly unlikely to forget the giants that helped them get there. As I’m sure you gathered from my previous responses, I’m not personally concerned with escaping the shadows of previous masters or reinventing the wheel: I just want each new take on speculative fiction to bring in something fresh enough to require a good deal of active, analytical thought to trace it back to Lovecraft and Tolkien—because that means that it took a lot of active thought and creativity for the author to write the piece in the first place.

By the same coin, I think pieces that directly reference previous icons in a tongue-in-cheek manner have their own merits by playing off of something familiar and almost “breaking the fourth wall” in a sense. It’s not quite satire, but it’s not mere fanfiction either. There’s a delicate balance to be struck there, and a few people do it just right.

Another inspiration you cite is Tamsyn Muir. Are there other women/LGBTQ+ authors whose weird work you find inspirational? Any favorites?

ECC: When I was a child, I absolutely adored A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, along with all its sequels. I think these were actually my first real foray into true, far-out science fiction. I had a little Evangelion notebook where I wrote down all the poems from one of the sequel books… The one about the mitochondria. I can’t even remember the name anymore. [A Wind in the Door (1973)] Sadly, aside from Ursula K. Le Guin, no one else is really popping out in my mind. I’m not sure if this speaks to the lack of diversity in the genre, or my lack of adventurism as a reader!

DRH: I personally really like the work of C. S. Friedman, particularly Black Sun Rising.

Besides specific authors, are there any specific anthologies, ezines, magazines, or films that have inspired Starward Shadows Quarterly?

ECC: Films have actually been a massive inspiration for me over the years, arguably moreso than literature. Growing up, I was absolutely obsessed with A Clockwork Orange, Pink Floyd: The Wall, and Natural Born Killers, just to name a few. I was also a huge anime fan in my youth, and I can practically recite the entire Neon Genesis Evangelion series by heart at this point. On the Science Fiction end of things, Outlaw Star was also one of my greatest inspirations of all time and space.

Video games have been another massive inspiration for me over the years. While we were in the process of creating the magazine, I was (and still am) obsessively playing through the entire Dark Souls series. I’m awestruck with what a wonderful job the developers did at creating a bleak and sorrowful world that still somehow manages to inspire the slightest bit of hope in the end. One thing that absolutely captivates me about Dark Souls is what a great metaphor it is for depression and other mental illnesses. No matter how many times you lose and get beaten to a pulp, eventually you overcome it, and life (or undeath, in this case, I suppose) goes on.

As far as other magazines, I really admire the design and setup of both Vastarien and Cosmic Horror Monthly. I also worked for a New Weird magazine called Novel Noctule for a time, and admittedly, what I learned there inspired our “behind the scenes” processes a great deal.

DRH: You’ll never guess this, but Lord of the Rings… I think I speak for both of us when I say that we also take a huge amount of inspiration from music in genres such as dungeon synth and dark ambient. I also really enjoy the atmosphere in games like Morrowind and Oblivion, so that tends to creep in as well.

While Starward Shadows Quarterly wears its literary inspirations on its sleeve, who are the artistic inspirations?

DRH: Oh wow, well, I could go on for more hours than anyone wants about this, so I’ll just give you a list of highlights: Michael Whelan, Philippe Caza, Lady Frieda Harris, H. R. Giger, Zdzisław Beksiński, Austin Osman Spare, Vincent Van Gogh, Alphonse Mucha, Bruce Pennington, and Frank Frazetta.

ECC: I really like the art of Michael Whelan, the guy who did the covers for the Elric series, along with countless others. Zdzisław Beksiński also immediately came to mind. Once upon a time, a former member of one of the most legendary proto-black metal bands of all time told me that my own artwork reminded him of Austin Osman Spare, so I suppose he makes the list as well.

Your submissions guidelines specifically call for works by neurodivergent and disabled authors. Do you feel weird fiction in general does a poor job of representing such voices?

ECC: Actually, yes. I feel that too often, the neurodivergence ends up being the “horror” or the punchline of the story. The same goes for disability. I feel there are too many stories about neurodivergent/disabled people and not enough by them, if that makes sense—and it should come as no surprise that most of these aforementioned stories are written by neurotypical people who see a life of disability as the ultimate horror.

DRH: I do feel that speculative and weird fiction do tend to follow the troughs previously dug for them by cisgendered male authors. Obviously, that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of authors within that demographic that fully deserve the pedestal that they’ve been given. But I’ve always felt a burning desire to raise equal pedestals for other demographics: Pedestals reserved for others who match previous and current authors in skill, not in demographic.

Just a side note: I’m afraid that, sometimes, the label of “weird” sometimes also causes a lot of the very authors we seek to slink back and hide a bit: not everyone is comfortable wearing an alternative or underrepresented label like a shroud. Not everyone wants to feel like a “freak who joined the circus” thanks to a lot of the stigma that still clings to the idea of being different. So, hopefully, I’m not creating a catch-22. However, I do feel that speculative/weird fiction as a whole tends to passively allow neurodivergent and disabled voices to go unheard, and I want to actively call those voices to a place where they’ll feel welcome, whether it be as authors or as readers.

Based on your submissions, do you feel there is a lot of diversity in the folks writing weird fiction these days?

ECC: Unfortunately—and it’s hard to tell from a single submissions period, but I’ll try my best—it still in some ways seems to be an “old boys club.” I can say with confidence that we received more submissions from cis guys than any other demographic. Now I want to stress there’s nothing wrong with this. We’ve published several of them, in fact, and will continue to welcome them with open arms along with everyone else. But even though we specifically called for disabled and neurodivergent authors, we didn’t get submissions from a ton of them.

One genre that’s especially lacking in diversity, I’ve noticed, is Sword and Sorcery. Finding a good Sword and Planet story by a female author honestly felt like fishing out a single pearl in a sea of marbles. We barely received any S&S/S&P from anyone but cis guys, which I hope in the future will change.

Another trend I noticed was that guys lean towards “harder” SF stuff and body horror, while women seemed more likely to send fantasy or psychological stuff. Of course, there were a few awesome ladies that sent hardcore body horror that made everything else in the inbox seem pale—but unfortunately that’s not exactly the type of thing we’re going for with the magazine, as cool as it is.

I must say, I feel that the published Weird Fiction sphere feels very “curated” after digging through our inbox. The subs were definitely not in line with what I see out there in the world published. I think editors are doing a careful job selecting work by underrepresented groups, and making sure not to gloss them over like they might have in the past.

DRH: …I wish I had a different answer to give you, but: not so much. There’s more diversity than there used to be, certainly, and that’s wonderful. However, I do still have to put in a deliberate effort to find authors from underrepresented demographics within the ocean of slush. (If you fall under a marginalized demographic, take this as an active call! I’d love to read what you have to say.)

From an editorial perspective, how do you handle issues of prejudice & discrimination in the submissions you receive?

DRH: At the risk of seeming blunt or harsh: If a submission contains enough content that I don’t even feel comfortable reading, let alone publishing, I simply auto-reject. I tend to ramble (in case anyone missed that) so I can’t afford the time to give personal feedback if something surpasses a certain threshold of “not at all what I’m looking for.” It’s too overwhelming.

But if a piece is creative and promising enough to maintain its “spark” despite any discriminatory/prejudiced language or themes, I’m happy to reach out to the author and discuss the matter with them. I’ll point out how it could be interpreted, ask if that’s how they meant for it to come off, and offer them the opportunity for an R&R. After all, if someone is open to the idea of learning and growing as a modern author, I’m thrilled to play a part in helping them to do that.

ECC: There were a few situations where we received a story where it genuinely seemed like the author didn’t realize what they were writing could be perceived as offensive. In these cases, if I felt they were well-intentioned but naïve, I gently explained why we couldn’t publish it. However, if something was written on purpose with the intent to shock or come across as offensive, we usually just sent them a form rejection. Right out of the gate I decided I wasn’t going to engage with trolls—especially the ones who know exactly what they’re doing. Why give them the sick satisfaction?

As speculative fiction writers, artists, and editors, you have both worked in the trenches of weird fiction websites and ezines for a few years. Have you faced discrimination for your gender or sexuality in that context?

ECC: Recently, I had a really weird experience where I submitted a story to a certain venue, and it was quickly accepted with much enthusiasm. However, somehow, the editor seemed to have missed the fact that the main character was trans. (It certainly wasn’t the focal point of the story, so I guess it makes sense it went over his head: I always try to present characters as just “people” so maybe this time I did too good of a job, ha). But anyways, as soon as he found out, he started acting kind of weird, and basically tried to delicately tiptoe out of the contract.

All discrimination aside, the same guy was also incredibly hurtful and rude to me during the prolonged illness of a family member after approaching me for some totally unrelated writing event, so he may have just been a jerk.

But all-in-all, my experiences haven’t been so bad. Overall people have been pretty courteous, honestly. I can’t really comment definitively on whether or not my gender has worked for or against me, because if I’ve been rejected on that basis, it’s been kept behind the scenes.

DRH: Unfortunately, yes, I have. There has been more than one seemingly-promising opportunity that went dark after my LGBTQ+ status came to light, and I’ll admit that it can be very disheartening. There was even a situation where I was asked/welcomed to volunteer my voice as a marginalized demographic, only to have the project fall through after the creator moved on and found more “convenient” replacements. Things like that suck. They always have, and they always will—but, at the end of the day, they only reinforce the conviction that I’m doing the right thing by working on a publication that actively seeks to welcome and elevate authors who may have experienced similar things.

As a medium, how do you think ezines like Starward Shadows Quarterly compare with older media like Weird Tales? What are the advantages and disadvantages?

ECC: Weird Tales has an old, dedicated audience who might not even be that tech savvy. People are always going to follow it just for the name, and the fact that Lovecraft was published in it back in the day. It could be owned by a team of purple canaries and certain people would still rave about Weird Tales. Also, it’s basically impossible to get into this thing without already being established. I remember following their submissions a year or two ago, and they took a grand total of one unsolicited submission from a pool of 500 to 1,000 authors. So basically it’s an invite-only old boys club that, in my opinion, isn’t really offering anything revolutionary or even new.

This probably sounds like a stab, but I don’t mean it that way: I feel the same way about plenty of other big-name magazines that invite the same big-name authors again and again. For lack of a better word, it’s boring. At Starward Shadows, we promise to give new voices a chance instead of creating an echo chamber for the same old ones. (Not like we could afford the big names anyway! Ha!)

But at the end of the day, I think this makes us a lot more relatable. The average up-and-coming author stands about as much of a chance at getting into Weird Tales as a street urchin does at becoming the Emperor of the Galaxy, so hopefully they’ll dream of getting into Starward Shadows instead.

DRH: I don’t really have much to say about this other than that we hope to bring in all kinds of fresh content that Weird Tales doesn’t offer.

The tagline for Starward Shadows Quarterly is “The Speculative Fiction Ezine Where The Stars Are Always Right.” Do you think that the stars have always been right for diverse cosmic horror fiction? Or has something changed?

DRH: Oh boy, this is a loaded question. Erica and I actually banter back and forth on a very regular basis over whether the stars are “right” for something or not. I say that the stars are ever changing, and that the constant chaos and change of the universe mean that there’s a point of opportunity for just about anything. In fact, one could say that the stars have always been right for diversity since it’s always been present—humanity’s social confines have been the problem.

I would, however, say that the “cultural stars” are now more favorable towards diversity within cosmic horror fiction than they used to be during, say, Lovecraft’s day. I do think that society has shifted towards a place of greater awareness of marginalized demographics—I shudder to think of the life of secrecy and fear that I’d have had to live mere decades ago. And hopefully, with future issues, we can continue to make the stars even better for those who can relate to a statement like that.

ECC: Oh, they never are. It’s an inside joke, really. If you sit around waiting for the stars to be right, your life and the entire world will pass you by. Whether the stars are right or not, this is the time you were born in, so it’s the only chance you’ll ever have to write cosmic horror.

All jokes aside, I think we can all agree on one thing: In the past, the stars definitely weren’t aligned for anybody that didn’t fit the mold. But this isn’t a problem unique to cosmic horror. And sadly, to this day, things haven’t changed as much as they should have. We can’t fix the world, but we can promise to give you a chance that others wouldn’t if you send us your greatest cosmic horror piece, no matter who you are or where you come from.

What do you see as the future of Lovecraftian fiction and cosmic horror?

ECC: I think the universe, and the future of cosmic horror, is a circle. In other words, everything old is new again. The past and the present will slowly integrate in a way that Lovecraft himself probably never would have imagined. New authors will continue to be inspired by his work, but slowly, the trickle of new material flowing into the Mythos will become a waterfall: So the authors of the future will have a lot more to work with than we do in this generation. If we do a good job, that is.

I wonder what he’d think about it, really. Maybe if the universe really is a circle, the stars will finally be right someday in the far future of the distant past, and I can ask him.

DRH: Oh, everything. As social dynamics and culture have changed to become more accepting, and as scientific discoveries have progressed, so many doors have been opened. In online spaces you find people exchanging incredible, inspiring, and horrifying ideas at a rate that never used to be possible. I think that all these things will contribute to cosmic horror becoming more intricate and well known than ever before—perhaps too well known…

Thank you Erica and Desmond for answering these questions, and for a chance to pick your brains about the state of weird fiction, and a look at the inner workings of Starward Shadows Quarterly.

Starward Shadows Quartery can be found online at https://starwardshadows.com/ and you can follow them on twitter at https://twitter.com/StarwardShadows.


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

“Zolamin and the Mad God” (2013) by Lisa Morton

“You can best me at dice, girl, but let’s see how well you do in my bed.”

She’d grinned, but Amarkosa had shouted from the bar, “You, sir, would be well advised to release her arm while you’ve still got one of your own.” The spectators had all guffawed, but the barbarian had flushed and yanked Zolamin close. “I think I can handle this—”

When she broke the bottle of ale over his head, he was only stunned—but when he found the jagged bottleneck pressed to his throat, he’d sobered up quickly. “You can leave like a good boy,” Zolamin told him, “or you can leave like a dead man. Your choice.”
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013) 111

Pedants can argue whether or not Clark Ashton Smith’s stories of Hyperborea count as sword & sorcery; stories like “The Seven Geases” are replete with sorcery, but little swordplay. As with his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, E. R. Eddision, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith took inspiration from Orientalist fiction such as the 1,001 Nights and epic tales such as the Prose Eddas. Their settings of Pegāna and Elf-land, Witchland and Demonland, Middle Earth, the Hyborian and Thurian Ages, Hyperborea and Poiseidonis are exotic fantasy-lands, filled with thieves, warriors, wizards, and monsters. Each of them added to a growing fantasy milieu which blossomed in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, and inspired the huge resurgence in fantasy settings which continues today.

What differed for each writer was the approach. Howard’s tales of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, and and Solomon Kane are action-packed, bloody, dark, with a gritty, hardboiled American sensibility. Clark Ashton Smith’s stories such as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” are more sardonic, less focused on bloodshed, giving more detail to the descriptions of gems and cruelty, to sorcery and horror. If Howard’s tales are heroic fantasy, driven by protagonists that live by their swords and their wits, Smith is closer to dark fantasy, with few heroes to triumph, where many of the main characters are undone by their own hubris and unbridled desires.

Lisa Morton’s Zolamin shares a literary lineage with Howard’s Valeria (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”) and Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, in that she is a woman warrior and mercenary; but the setting of the story and the overall tone is definitely Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea…though a little more explicit than Smith could ever publish:

She remembered her mother, forced into a life of prostitution after her parents had traded her at the age of ten for a pair of oxen. Zolamin’s mother had borne her while still a teen; her father could have been any of dozens of men. Determined that her daughter would not follow in her footsteps, mother had done her best to disguise the child’s gender and raised her as a boy […]
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden 114

Zolamin’s backstory is essential to her character for this story, because the Mad God plays on her ambitions, small and different as they are. Her character drives the story, and if it is not quite hardboiled fantasy in the vein of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest with swords, it is still a respectable entry in a fairly small body of work: stories set in the worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, and striving to capture some of the mood of his tales rather than pastiche the way he wrote them. Like “Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, it isn’t sword-skill which determines the course of the story as much as choices made which are a bit darker and more psychologically driven. There are scenes of action but they are often anti-climactic, interrupted by the visions of the Mad God, and that in itself is part of why the story works, because Zolamin has to decide how to handle the messy affair she has stumbled into…and unlike Conan and the Tower of the Elephant, there is no mercy to be dealt out here.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” was published in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013). It has not yet been reprinted.


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

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The Shuttered Room (1966) by Julia Withers

Incidentally, I’ve just sold Heritage Productions THE SHUTTERED ROOM. No doubt they’ll flesh out the “romance” between Dunwich girl and Innsmouth girl to give it “body” and we’ll have a shilling shocker out of it, but I couldn’t care less, really….
—August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Feb 1964, Letters to Arkham 170

“The Shuttered Room,” the title story for the collection The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959), is arguably Derleth’s greatest work of fanfiction. While originally billed as one of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations,” and Derleth had claimed to base it on unspecified notes by Lovecraft. In one letter, Derleth described it as:

[…] wedding of the Innsmouth and Dunwich themes, as manifestly HPL intended to do, judging by his scant notes.
—August Derleth to Felix Stefanile, August 11, 1958, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Whether or not these notes actually existed is open to speculation; no surviving letters suggests Lovecraft had any intention to unite the two themes. Nevertheless, in 1958 Derleth sat down to write the story (A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 215, 231). The result is not his best Mythos story, or even his best pastiche, but probably the best fanfiction story that Derleth would ever write, a literal union of the Whateley and Marsh family trees from “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” paying detailed homage to both.

In the 1960s, August Derleth and Arkham House began to have some success in selling the film rights to various Lovecraft & related properties, resulting in five films:

Despite the fact that every film except The Shuttered Room was distributed by American International Productions, this wasn’t an early effort at a cinematic universe or franchise along the lines of the Universal monsters. While a couple of the films shared a few elements such as the Necronomicon, each was produced separately and without any direct tie-ins to the others in the form of characters, sets, props, or storylines.

The films all received different marketing promotions and led to the creation of associate media: Die, Monster, Die! got a comic book adaptation and there was an Italian fotonovela created for Curse of the Crimson Altar, for example. In 1966, released before the film came out, The Shuttered Room received a film novelization—as a kind of Gothic romance.

The novel was written by “Julia Withers,” a pseudonym used by prolific novelist and ghostwriter Jerrold Mundis who had worked on several different screenplay novelizations in the late 1960s. It’s difficult to tell how successful the slim paperback (only 156 pages) was. It is even more difficult to tell if Mundis ever bothered to read Derleth’s original story. Probably not; there is little enough let of Derleth’s original story in the screenplay by D. B. Ledrov and Nathaniel Tanchuck. Much of the best writing in the short story is in the descriptive passages that Derleth wrote so well, and the best part of the film is the cinematography; the novel lacks both.

The Shuttered Room (novel) is a very barebones kind of contemporary thriller dressed up (at least in terms of the cover) as a kind of Gothic romance, where family secrets, an old building, and a family curse threaten a nice young couple. There is no Mythos content beyond the name of Dunwich itself—here an isolated island rather than a town. Even “Whateley” is rendered as “Whately,” and there is no reference to Innsmouth at all. What Mundis does add above and beyond what is in the film is a touch of the grotesque, some backstory that either never made it to the final film or was cut out, and one important thing…

There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from that long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery-skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavery from its batrachian jaws and upon its webbed fingers—a monstrous entity that had strong, powerfully long arms, grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers…
—August Derleth, “The Shuttered Room” in The Watchers Out of Time 158

Something vaguely resembling a woman crouched in that doorway. Its hair was long and matted and tangled. A tattered filthy garment hung from its twisted body. Its eyes were large and bulbous. Its nose was non-existent, only two gaping holes. A slit with jagged teeth served for a mouth. It’s skin was leathery and cracked—scale-like, actually—and it glistened with moisture.
—Julia Withers (Jerrod Mundis), The Shuttered Room 149

Imagine trying to describe a Deep One/Whateley hybrid, in a setting which has already expunged every reference to Innsmouth and to an audience that has no familiarity with “The Dunwich Horror.” The solution in Mundis’ The Shuttered Room was to describe the nameless Whately child as a monstrous freak: “stillborn…or it should have been…but it lived.”

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” as Lovecraft would put it. The idea was that living things re-experience the stages of evolution as they grow; so that human embryos have gills…tails…which are lost as they develop. The idea that an embryo might get “stuck” at a certain stage and yet successfully be born and grow to adulthood is not unique to The Shuttered Room novel. In fact, it is strongly reminiscent of the 1953 horror film The Maze—and one has to wonder if Derleth might not have taken a bit of inspiration from this film too. Some years after Derleth wrote “The Shuttered Room,” Ramsey Campbell mentioned the film to Derleth:

There have been movies with a definite slant toward the conceptions of the Mythos, however […] there was the one starring Richard Carlson titled THE MAZE, which was about the hideous frog-creature which is kept and fed in an ancient castle, and finally turns out to be the first in a line who now live in the castle!
—Ramsey Campbell to August Derleth, 10 Aug 1961, Letters to Arkham 12-13

Did Derleth borrow from The Maze? Did Jerrold Mundis? In such a case as this, where the original work has been so translated, and so changed in the transformation from short story to screenplay to short novel, it’s difficult to say…but the various works stand as distinct iterations of a very odd cadet line of the Mythos.

The film was not so creative. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the budget. The company forewent any supernatural or preternatural explanation; there was no monster, and almost no explanation. In that sense, at least, the novel is an improvement on the film, or at least a step closer to Derleth’s original story. The idea of a madwoman trapped in the attic is closer to Jane Eyre than Cthulhu; perhaps that’s why the marketing of The Shuttered Room (novel) bears the hallmarks of the Gothic romances of its day, rather than any effort to market it to Lovecraft fans. The novel stands as an example of how truly weird and diffuse Lovecraftian influence can get.


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

“Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson

For the first time he recognized that the possession of an object was never as ecstatic as the seeking; the reality never as pleasurable as the dream.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 201

There is no pithy word for stories that are inspired by Clark Ashton Smith, that partake of his style and essence, are reminiscent of his darker moods and most erotic intimations. When someone writes a tale that draws inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft, or involves him in some form, we call it “Lovecraftian.” For the Bard of Auburn, we might say “Smithian,” but there are many Smiths. “Klarkash-Tonian” is a bit of a mouthful. Nothing seems to succinctly embrace the whole concept.

It is a rare story where we have need of such a word.

“Hode of the High Place” is not set explicitly in Smith’s Zothique, or any other fantasy world we know. In mood, in device, in tone, it could well be. It fits neatly among the other neo-Zothique tales of The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), one of the very few anthologies where authors are encouraged to play in Clark Ashton Smith’s imaginary worlds. Smith himself might well have smiled and recognized this story as a literary descendant, had he lived long enough to read it.

When considering those who follow Smith, there is a tendency toward pastiche, as in “The Vulviflora of Vuutsavek” (2008) by Charlotte Alchemilla Smythe. Salmonson is wise enough to not try and mimic the same tendency for arcane vocabulary, but there are elements of Smith that readers will recognize in the tone, the omniscient third-person perspective which is almost voyeuristic in following the triumphs and tragedies of this story. Then there is the erotic element.

A gelatinous mass flowed over him, oblivious to his thrashing, smothering him as the water had smothered the flames. Then he felt something expected and pleasant: gentle, rhythmic constrictions around his genitals.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 197

One of the hallmarks of Smith’s fiction was a fascination with scenes of unnatural carnal pleasures, necrophilia (or perhaps more accurately, a love that extends beyond death), assignations with witches, lamia, and succubi, etc. It isn’t in every work, and it isn’t in any sense explicit by contemporary terms, even his play The Dead Will Cuckold You (1951) is concerned with character and relationships rather than actually describing the actions of genitalia. Some of Smith’s stories which could only be published in expurgated form during his lifetime, such as “Mother of Toads” (Weird Tales Jul 1938), are quaint in terms of actual sexual content, though still potent in terms of image, plot, and suggestion.

This reticence toward explicit sexual description in Smith’s fiction, and his frustration with the standards of his day that censored even that, can be easily understood. Clark Ashton Smith was writing weird fiction of which sex was a part, but not weird erotica or pornography with a weird setting. The point of Smith’s stories was not to sexually excite the reader, not in the way of Victorian erotica like The Way of a Man With A Maid. The erotic element was always intimately tied to the weirdness in some fashion, as with the work of Arthur Machen. Perhaps Smith might have been more explicit if editors and laws had allowed it, but there was no way it could have been published in the 1930s under existing censorship laws.

Contemporary writers don’t operate under the same restrictions. It is much more acceptable these days to be much more explicit about sexual relations. Salmonson could no doubt have gotten away with far more sexual content in this story; other tales are more explicit. Yet this is not a case where the point is to titillate the reader; it is a necessary plot point for the story. Ultimately, I would say that “Hode of the High Place” shows admirable restraint, getting just explicit enough to cross that conceptual line between “suitable for young adults” to “suitable for adult audiences,” but not becoming particularly lurid or distracting from the rest of the story…indeed, the brief sexual scenes are ultimately critical.

It was fashioned in the shape of a bone with a serpent wrapped around, the universal insignia used on jars of poison, pictured on no-trespassing signs to prove the warning adamant, and marked on maps to show where wayfarers had best not go.
—Jessica Amanda Salmonson, “Hode of the High Place” in The Last Continent 206

If “Hode of the High Place” is not set in Zothique itself, it still feels like it could be set beneath a dying sun on a dying world, one last tragedy being acted out with all of its follies and its terrible inevitability.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson’s “Hode of the High Place” was first published in Beyond Lands of Never (1984), the second volume of the fantasy Lands of Never (1983). It was republished in The Last Continent: New Tales of Zothique (1999), and in her collection Dark Tales (2002).


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

Shadows of Wings (1930) by Susan Myra Gregory

A poet-friend of mine, Susan Myra Gregory of Monterey, sister of the novelist Jackson Gregory, asked me to write a preface for a little collection of her verse which is being brought out in Southern California. She has a real lyric talent, of the true feminine Sapphic type, and I was glad to do the preface—an odd interlude in the writing of my Antarean novelette.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 10 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 190

Susan Myra Gregory was 46 years old when her small 40-page book of poems was published, with a card cover, by the Troubadour Press in San Diego. She had worked for many years as a teacher of English and journalism at Analy high school and Monterey high school. Gregory provided some of the local color to John Steinbeck, who set novel Tortilla Flat (1935) in Monterey and dedicated it to her. There are few references to her in Smith’s published letters, but it seems likely that, as with many California poets, Susan Myra Gregory may have met Clark Ashton Smith through his mentor George Sterling, or possibly when Smith made one of his trips down from Auburn to Carmel. Her brother Jackson Gregory, an author of popular westerns, whose wife Lotus McGlashan Gregory had bought a few of Clark Ashton Smith’s drawings some years before (The Shadow of the Unattained 200).

Whatever the extent of their relationship, it was obviously enough of a relationship for Smith to gladly write an introduction to her poetry collection.

05

It is easy to see why Smith would enjoy Gregory’s poetry. Poems such as “Tonight,” “Necromancy,” and “Orpheus’ Song to Eurydice” touch on some of his favorite themes, and his introduction struck enough of a chord with one contemporary reviewer to quotes liberally from it. 

if she is more Classical and less cosmic or macabre in her scope than either Sterling or Smith, her poems smack of the fantastic verse which Arkham House would publish in volumes such as Fire and Sleet and Candlelight (1961). “Dream” and “Sleep” might not have been out of place in the pages of Weird Tales, and indeed several of these poems are reprinted from various magazines and journals.

From a strictly commercial standpoint, the book is a bit of a trifle, and has a certain vanity-press air, although it was published as part of a series of ten booklets by modern poets. Classic poems dedicated to Sappho had less cachet to the general public during the interwar years, though no doubt H. P. Lovecraft or Samuel Loveman, both dedicated Classicists, would have appreciated the beauty of lines like:

No, the “lost songs of Sappho” are not lost;
Only ye seek afar for something near.

Though no doubt Lovecraft would have tsk’d at the use of archaic English diction in this instance, Clark Ashton Smith’s edict that “it seems impossible that such poetry as hers will not always have its lovers” is true, or at least it should be. For the sentiments are sweet, the language is soft, and lines such as “Beauty so keen is like a two-edged sword” deserve to be mumbled through the lips of some trenchcoat-clad detective in a Noir film.

Susan Myra Gregory’s poetic career did not end with this book; she had several poems published in Singing Years: The Sonoma County Anthology of Poetry and Prose (1933), but what further contact she had with Clark Ashton Smith is unclear. She died in 1939.

Shadows of Wings has been scanned and is available here.


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

Her Letters to Robert E. Howard: Catherine Lucille Moore

Dear Mr. Howard:

My blessing! I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed “Sword-Woman.” It seemed such a pity to leave her just at the threshold of higher adventures. Your favorite trick of slamming the door on a burst of bugles! And leaving one to wonder what happened next and wanting so badly to know. Aren’t there any more stories about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Catherine Lucille Moore burst into the pages of Weird Tales with “Shambleau” (Nov 1933). She was a secretary at the Fletcher Trust Company in her native Indianapolis, Indiana, and engaged to a bank teller named Herbert Ernest Lewis. During the Great Depression, jobs were scarce and her $25 a week was needed to support her family; married women were often expected to be homemakers, and this may be why Moore and her fiance had a long engagement—and it is why, when she began to sell her stories to the pulps for extra cash, she used her initials “C. L.” so that her employers would not discover she had an extra source of income.

By the time C. L. Moore hit the pages of Weird Tales, to immediate acclaim, Robert E. Howard had already become a fixture; his stories of Conan the Cimmerian were still going strong, interspersed with other weird tales and poems, as well as sales to Weird Tales‘ companion magazine The Magic Carpet, and he had just employed an agent, Otis Adelbert Kline, who would help Howard break into many other pulp markets.

Both Moore and Howard had correspondents in common, notably H. P. Lovecraft, but also R. H. Barlow and E. Hoffmann Price; Howard and Moore also shared a friend in Frank Thurston Torbett, a Texan fan of weird fiction. Yet there is nothing in the letters of either of the principles to their friends to suggest of a correspondence between two of the great fantasists of Weird Tales in the ’30s. All that is known to survive of their correspondence is a single letter, dated 29 January 1935…and from that, and a few inferences in the rest of their correspondence to others, is all that we can judge of their exchange.

To begin with, we know that Moore was a fan:

I’d like to read everything Robert E. Howard has ever written. The first story of his I read was WORMS OF THE EARTH, and I’ve been a fanatic ever since. And of course Lovecraft and Price.
—C. L. Moore to R. H. Barlow, n. d. [early Apr 1934], MSS John Hay Library

In the October 1934 issue of Weird Tales, readers were treated to both the Conan story “The People of the Black Circle” and “Black God’s Kiss” by C. L. Moore—which introduced her character Jirel of Joiry, a redheaded French swordswoman in a fantastic medieval France. While not as heavy on the action as Howard, Moore’s weird imagination and the fiery disposition of her warrior made an impression on the readers, with comments printed 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, WT Dec 1934

The character of Jirel may become as famous to us as Conan. I vote her first place.
—Claude H. Cameron, WT Jan 1935

We don’t know exactly what began the exchange of letters; Lovecraft, Price, Barlow, or Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright could all easily have supplied the other’s address for the asking. Near the end of the letter, Moore writes:

Thanks for being flattering about “Black God’s Shadow,” and for letting me read “Sword-Woman.” So see if you can’t find some more about Agnes?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 27

“Black God’s Shadow,” the second Jirel of Joiry story, was published in the December 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which would have hit the stands in mid-November. Few of Howard’s letters from this period survive, but a letter to August Derleth (11 Dec 1934) mentions the contents of the December Weird Tales. “Sword Woman” was an historical adventure story starring Dark Agnès de Chastillion, a red-haired female warrior-mercenary in 16th century France—with obvious parallels to Jirel of Joiry, although the two were conceived separately. “Sword Woman” is neither set in the East or a weird story, so it would seem unlikely that Farnsworth Wright saw and rejected it, unless it was intended for the never-published third magazine Strange Stories; possibly Howard had intended to send it to Action Stories.

We can only speculate who wrote first. What is clear is that the 29 January letter is not the first letter in the exchange; it is too involved in answering specific points from a previous letter, such as notorious bank robber John Dillinger, who had been shot to death on 22 July 1934:

About Dillinger, it’s not distinction in this part of the country to have known him—practically everyone did. Mooresville, his home town, is only a few miles south of here and happens to be my fiance’s birthplace too. I know several who went to school with him, and in Mooresville the sympathy with him ran very high.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

Howard, who had a fondness for outlaws (at least of a certain sort), had been following news of Dillinger at least somewhat, since he had written to Lovecraft on 24 March 1934 that “Notice they haven’t caught Dillinger yet” (A Means to Freedom 2.724). Presumably he had responded to some comment that Moore had made, possibly regarding his death.

Much of the letter, however, focuses on a mutual love of both Howard and Moore: poetry. In keeping with the theme of warrior-women, Moore thanks Howard for “the original of Mary Ambree,” which suggests Howard copied out the ballad that begins:

WHEN captains courageous, whom death could
Did march to the siege of the city of Gaunt,
They mustered their soldiers by two and by three,
And the foremost in battle was Mary Ambree.

From Moore’s comments, the other snippets of poetry were taken from Kipling (the title of whose novel Captains Courageous is taken from the ballad); Howard had an edition of Rudyard Kipling’s Verse in his library at the time of his death. Other poems Howard quoted include Frederick I. C. Clarke’s “The Fighting Race” (“But his rusty pike’s in the cabin still, With Hessian blood on the blade.”) and G. K. Chesterton’s “The Ballad of the White Horse” (“That bore King Alfred’s battle-sword Broken in his left hand.”) Most, if not all, of the poems are about battle and war, suggesting that they were discussing the theme, possibly as an extension of Jirel and Agnès.

Well, I could go on and one forever on that line, but had better change the subject.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 25

What’s left of the letter is largely concerned with Howard’s own fiction, especially Conan stories. She mentions “The Devil in Iron” (WT Aug 1934) and “A Witch Shall Be Born” (WT Dec 1934), saying of the latter:

That “Witch” story was pretty strong meat, but perfectly grand. Such a lustiness about your stories when you want them that way. And the witch herself was gorgeous. Odear, I’m consumed with jealousy.
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 24

There is a passing reference to “the new serial, with Conan among the frontiersmen,” which would be a reference to “Beyond the Black River” (WT May-Jun 1935) that Howard had just sold, and accepting his offer for a copy of “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales June 1934). Howard wrote to Lovecraft ca. Dec 1934 a passage which he might have copied, in essence if not word-for-word, in his preceding letter to Moore:

My latest sales to Weird Tales have been a two-part Conan serial: “Beyond the Black River”—a frontier story; and a novelet dealing with Mississippi negroes, etc. “The Moon of Zambebwei”, which I understand will be changed to “The Grisly Horror.” In the Conan story I’ve attempted a new style and setting entirely—abandoned the exotic settings of lost cities, decaying civilizations, golden domes, marble palaces, silk-clad dancing girls, etc., and thrown my story against a back-ground of forests and rivers, log cabins, frontier outposts, buckskin-clad settlers, and painted tribesmen Some day I’m going to try my hand at a longer yarn of the same style, a serial of four or five parts.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, ca. Dec 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.817

Perhaps this precipitated one of the most interesting passages in Moore’s letter, the equivalent to asking Lovecraft if the Necronomicon is real:

Tell me, do  you really think it possible that mankind goes back as far, and thru as many changing times and topographies, as you write about? I understand Lovecraft, for instance, doesn’t take anything he writes at all seriously. But sometimes I have myself half convinced—as those times when I’m alone in the house late at night and am perfectly sure that the entire outside is one solid mass of vampires and were-wolves! It seems rather arbitrary to be hard-headed and say, “Nothing exists but what we can see or feel,” and yet it’s even worse to err on the side of credulity. What’s your opinion?
—C. L. Moore to Robert E. Howard, 29 Jan 1935, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 26

Quite a few people would love to read Howard’s answer to that question. This letter to Robert E. Howard predates Moore’s first letter from Lovecraft, so she was repeating what her friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow had said about the Old Gent in Providence. As far as can be ascertained, Howard never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Lovecraft, Moore never mentioned her correspondence with Howard to Lovecraft, and Lovecraft never mentioned his correspondence with Moore to Howard, but discusses and alludes to his correspondence with Howard to Moore. Whether that means that Howard and Moore corresponded only briefly, and dropped each other after a time—or whether it carried on for the rest of Howard’s brief life, we don’t know.

The implication, from some of her letters to Lovecraft showing ignorance of Howard’s upcoming publications and travels in 1935, suggest that the correspondence may have been sporadic or intermittent (Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 68, 70). Years later, she recalled in an interview:

Do you remember anything in particular about your correspondence with REH?

Moore: We really had such a short period to correspond that I don’t remember much, except that he seemed interested and had a good mind. We had enough common background that we were able to talk to each other, on paper anyway. I think he would have been pleasant to know—just as Lovecraft would’ve.
Chacal #1, 31

On 13 February 1936, her fiance Herbert Ernest Lewis died by a self-inflicted gunshot wound. Though reported as an accident in the newspapers and in Moore’s letters, the death certificate lists it as a suicide. Moore was severely affected, and Lovecraft rushed to keep her occupied:

Despite my upheaved programme I at once started a letter of what I thought to be the most consoling & useful sort—with sympathetic remarks & citations of others who have bravely pulled out of similar bereavements) gradually giving place to the cheerful discussion of general & impersonal topics in which long time-stretches (thus placing local & individual sorrows at the small end of the telescope) are concerned—answering a letter received early in February. History was the main theme—the dominant topic being Roman Britain & its long decline, as brought up by C L M’s discussion of Talbot Mundy’s “Tros” stories. That, I fancy, is the kind of stuff a bereaved person likes to get from the outside world—sincere sympathy not rubbed in, & a selection of general topics attuned to his interests & quietly reminding him that there is a world which has always gone on & which still goes on despite personal losses. […] I managed to finish & despatch the epistle last Monday. But the tragic accident surely is a beastly shame—far worse than deaths which do not his promising young folk with everything before them.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 321

Talbot Mundy, whose Tros of Samothrace was serialized in the pages of Adventure, was a favorite author of Robert E. Howard. What is real is that on 11 June 1936, Robert E. Howard took his own life, also with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.

Frank Thurston Torbett told Moore; Moore told Lovecraft; Lovecraft told everyone. With Robert E. Howard dead, she wrote to his father Dr. Isaac M. Howard for confirmation…and he wrote back:

I have since received a letter from Dr. Howard, his father, enclosing a note dated May 14 which REH had apparently been saving to send to me. […] The news was like a blow in the face. It’s amazing how real he seemed even through the medium of his letters. I had hoped to see him next year when and if I get that much-talked-of car and make the California trip, but he could scarcely have become more vivid had I known him personally.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 24 Jun 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 130-131

She wrote more to Lovecraft about Howard, but her most important letter was sent to his father:

It was a shock as stunning to me as if I had really known your son, for his letters made him very real to me. […] Nothing that I can say now would help you—I know, for four months ago I too suffered bereavement under very similar circumstances. The young man whom I was to marry this year was accidentally shot in the temple and instantly killed while leaning a gun which he thought unloaded. So I can understand what you are enduring now, and I know that nothing but time will help you find life worth living again. In one respect you are luckier than I, for you have memories of a full and happy life with your wife and son that nothing can take away. […] In the meantime, and until time has brought your comfort, as it is just now beginning to comfort me, there is nothing to say except that all over the United States we are grieving with you, and not only for you but for ourselves.
—C. L. Moore to Dr. I. M. Howard, 25 Jun 1936, The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard 52-53

The letter was published in the Cross Plains Review for 3 July 1936, although they misspelled her name.

We can only guess what else Howard and Moore might have discussed: poetry, philosophy, history, and action were all shared interests. Perhaps Howard showed her his other unpublished Dark Agnès works, or “Red Nails” with the pirate Valeria; perhaps she shared some of her own unpublished fiction, or they discussed Otis Adelbert Kline. Perhaps; unless some cache of letters surfaces, this is all we have…and perhaps we should be grateful that even this letter was saved from the ash heap of history.

The sole surviving letters to Robert E. Howard and Dr. Isaac M. Howard are published in The Collected Letters of Dr. Isaac M. Howard.


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Sonia H. Greene

I first met him at the Boston Convention when the amateur journalists gathered there for this conclave, in 1921. I admired his personality but frankly, at first, not his person.

As he was always trying to find recruits for amateur journalism he offered to send me some amateur literature not only form his own pen but also from the pens of others whose effort he felt was worthy of my perusal; works that appeared in the different amateur journals.

From then on we kept up quite a steady correspondence, and I felt highly flattered when he told me in some of his letters that mine indicated a freshness not born of immaturity, but rather a refreshingness because of originality and the courage of my convictions when I disagreed.

And I disagreed often, not just to be disagreeable, but because I wanted, if possible, to eradicate or partly remove some of his intensely fixed ideas.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 132

Sonia Haft Shafirkin was born to a Jewish family in 1883, in or near Ichnya, in the present-day Ukraine; then the Russian Empire. By the time Sonia was 7 years old, her father had left or deserted the family, and her mother obtained a divorce and emigrated westward. Sonia spent two years in the United Kingdom at school; her mother traveled on to the United States of America, remarried, and sent for her daughter. The homelife was not entirely happy, and her step-father soon put his new stepdaughter to work; Sonia was apprenticed to a milliner at age 13. At age 16, she married a 25-year-old Russian immigrant, Samuel Greene (ne Seckendorff). Her first child, a son, was born the next year and died in infancy. A daughter, Florence Carol Greene, was born in 1903.

The marriage did not last; Samuel Greene died in 1916. Sonia Haft Greene lived in New York continued to climb the ranks of the millinery trade, attended night schools and evening courses, raised her daughter, and helped to care for her mother (now separated from her husband) and two half-siblings. Sonia was draw into societies like the socially progressive Sunrise Club and the Blue Pencil Club, an amateur journalist affiliate where she met James F. Morton. Because of her connections with the BPC, Sonia attended the July 1921 amateur journalists convention in Boston, Massachusetts…and there, met H. P. Lovecraft.

It was not love at first sight, but there was a connection made, and the two began to correspond. We cannot say exactly what Sonia saw in Lovecraft, but consider her circumstances: a widow or divorcee, a single mother of an almost-grown daughter, financially self-sufficient, with literary interests…and here was an intelligent man who no doubt wrote her extremely gentlemanly yet challenging letters, probably filling pages on topics literary and philosophical…and Sonia apparently answered back. While many memoirs speak of Sonia’s beauty, few of them discuss her intelligence and wit…but Lovecraft did.

Lovecraft persuaded her to join the United Amateur Press Association, the amateur journalism group he was associated with, and she generously subscribed $50 to the fund (the equivalent of a month’s rent in many New York apartments at the time). These first letters do not survive, but based on the remarks that appear in Lovecraft’s letters at the time, and Sonia’s own comments, we can get an idea of some of the contents. For example, when Lovecraft wrote:

Galba, yuh’d orta hear what she says about you in her latest 12-pager! […] I never before saw a nut quite like Mme. Greenevsky—it must be Slavonic blood For pure hot air she may have rivals, but the joke is that there is sound sense and profound literary erudition beneath all the nonsense. So she thinks Grandpa is egotistical? Hell! That’s what she told me at the convention—and then added that she never would have wasted her valuable time in trying to convert me if I were not an unusual specimen, or something like that. Her worst trouble is an absent sense of humour—the poor fish thought it was serious egotism when I told her that I despise all mankind and consider myself a cosmic intelligence aloof from the race. In letters Mme. G. is not at all egotistical—I was surprised at the Uriah-Heepness of her written as distinguished from oral arguments. But Holy Yahveh, what floral rhetoric! However, let me not libel an honest and learned thinker, who is really the most remarkable accession which amateurdom has had for some time.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 104

Alfred Galpin and Lovecraft had been reading and discussing Frederick Nietzsche (or related works like Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism(1890), and Galpin’s essay “Nietzsche as a Practical Prophet”), and this had apparently spilled over into the letters with Sonia. At the same time that this July-August 1921 correspondence was taking place, Sonia and Lovecraft were planning out a new amateur journal, The Rainbow. The first issue (October 1921) contains a nominal essay by Lovecraft titled “Nietzscheism and Realism,” culled from excerpts from two of his letters to Sonia. It’s difficult to judge Sonia’s exact sentiments from Lovecraft’s letters, but some years later she wrote:

Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
In last evening’s Eagle I was amazed to find that Dr. M.P. McDonald has so far misinterpreted Nietzsche’s philosophy as to state that one “should trample his neighbor down,” and that this is so typically exemplified in the subway, where we find even the most modest girls flailing their arms to get into a much crowded car. I fear Dr. McDonald is interpreting the German professor literally.

The proper interpretation to put upon his philosophy is that if Nietzsche had his way, there would never be such crowded subways and there would be no need for trampling of any kind.

It is appalling how many people read Nietzsche and how few know how to interpret him. Any one who really wishes to understand him should read H. L. Menken’s [sic] “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.” I would advise the biography by Frederic Halevy; after reading which, the reader will find Nietzsche as a practical prophet rather than a destructive one.

The average American girl or boy will answer, when asked about Nietzsche: “Oh, that’s the guy who is to blame for the war.” Upon further inquiry, “Have you read anything by Nietzsche?” you will hear: “Aw, no. I haven’t and I don’t want to! He’s no good to read about anyway!”

As with Caesar, the good is interred with Nietzsche’s bones, and all that appears evil in the eyes of the nonunderstanding majority is flagrantly and maliciously flaunted into the universe.
Sonia Haft Greene to the Brooklyn Eagle, 10 Feb 1931

In her memoir, Sonia also wrote:

Yet, in one of his earliest letters to me, part of which I incorporated in my second issue of the Rainbow, he indicates the true reasons for being kindly, humane, just and merciful.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145)

Nietzsche’s work is also notably antisemitic, which may have tied into another subject that they discussed in their letters: the poet Samuel Loveman, who had been re-introduced to amateur journalism through Lovecraft’s efforts.

Long before H. P. and I were married he said to me in a letter when speaking of Loveman, “Loveman is a poet and a literary genius. I have never met him in person, but his letters indicate him to be a man of great learning and cultural background. The only discrepancy I find in him is that his of the Semitic race, a Jew.”

Then I replied that I was a little surprised at H. P.’s discrimination in this instance—that I thought H. P.. to be above such a petty fallacy—that perhaps our own friendship might find itself on the rocks under the circumstances, since I too am of the Hebrew people […]

It was only after several such exchanges of letters that he put the “pianissimo” on his thoughts (perhaps) and curtailed his outbursts of discrimination. In fact, it was after this that our own correspondence became more frequent and more intimate until, as I then believed, H.P. became entirely rid of his prejudices in this direction, and that no more need have been said about them.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 147-148

Lovecraft apparently urged Sonia to write to Loveman as well. At first, Sonia demurred. However, she had occasion to visit Cleveland, where Loveman lived, and met him there. They got on quite well; Lovecraft heard of the trip through Sonia’s letters:

When I wrote to him later I deplored the fact that he, too, could not have been with us; that his presence would have made my happiness complete for that evening, etc.

In reply I found a letter from him at home which was quite warm and appreciative, coming from him, but even the warmth was bountifully intermixed with reservations.

By this time I had two correspondents: H. P. and S. L.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 133

In September 1921, Sonia stopped in Providence while traveling on business, meeting Lovecraft and his aunts and putting the finishing touches on the first issue of The Rainbow, which was published to some acclaim the next month. Their 1921 letters no doubt discussed the contents, and their letters from October 1921 to early 1922 must have discussed the contents of the second issue, which would be published in May 1922:

I am grateful to Mrs. Greene for her editorial in support of my literary policies, as indeed for many instances of a courtesy & generosity seldom found in this degenerate aera. You may be assur’d that I shall not diminish the frequency of the epistles I send her, tho’ I am of opinion that S. Loveman & my grandchild Alfredus deserve much of the credit for her retention in the United. I regret that she hath suffer’d indignites from Mrs. Houtain; whose cast of mind, I suspect, is not exempt from the petty cruelty & fondness for gossip which blemish the humours of the most commonplace females.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 25 Jan 1922, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 194

However, Sonia also began to push another idea in her letters:

Her latest idea is to have a sort of convention of freaks & exotics in New York during the holidays; inviting for two weeks such provisional sages as Loveman, The Chee-ild [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.], & poor Grandpa Theobald [Lovecraft]! Only a sincere enthusiast could thus think of uprooting such outland fixtures from their native hearths!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 Sep 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 192

The idea of an amateur get-together in New York was a bit bold, but then Sonia had met both Lovecraft and Loveman separately, and must have known from their letters that Lovecraft had never met Loveman and desired to do so. It took some considerable convincing…but Sonia had considerable charm, and perhaps a secondary motive:

It was his prejudice against minorities, especially Jews, that prompted me to invite H. P. and S. L. to spend some time in New York, so that if H. P. never met a Jew before, I was happy to know that for the first time he would meet two of them, both of whom were favorably cultured and enlightened, and that the favored of the race is not limited to this infinitesimal number.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 148

Lovecraft had met Jewish people before, and Sonia’s hope of curing his prejudices didn’t work. However, he did accept her invitation to visit New York in April 1922 (if only to meet Loveman and visit with friends), and his letters to his aunts go into great detail about the attractions of the city and the graciousness of Sonia as a host. Then he departed for home, and their correspondence resumed.

The second (and last) issue of The Rainbow has a cover date of May 1922; this received a bit less attention than the first, and yet it must have been an expensive production. We’ll never know if it was the lack of reception, the cost, busyness on the part of Sonia and Lovecraft, or something else that caused her to cease publication. Yet their relationship continued after Lovecraft’s first New York adventure—and deepened.

Sonia made occasional visits to Providence, and on a trip to Magnolia, Massachusetts in June 1922, she invited Lovecraft to come along. The visit lasted from 26 June-5 July and resulted in the composition of at least two stories: “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock”, with a third tale apparently unpublished.

The trip also saw the start of a new correspondence circle, the Gremolo (Sonia GREene, James F. MOrton, and H. P. LOvecraft), similar to those that Lovecraft already participated in:

By the way—it looks as though the Galpinian cast-asides are going to found a scholastic salon of their own, for this a.m. there blew into the Magnolia P.O. two bulky duplicate letters for Mme. G. & myself, from good ol’ Mocrates [James F. Morton] in Madisonium. He calls the new circle the Gremolo, & doubtless intends it as the standard refuge for rejected second-raters.  […] Mo gives a cruel anecdote in the new Gremolo, which you must not repeat to SL on pain of death.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Jun 1922, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 226

No letters from Lovecraft to the Gremolo (or Morton or Sonia to the Gremolo) have surfaced, so it’s not clear how long it lasted, or if it differed substantially from Lovecraft’s other letters to Morton. Judging by Lovecraft’s letters to other such correspondence groups, they would probably have focused on literature, philosophy, and amateur affairs of mutual interest. Certainly, Lovecraft would not include anything intimate to letters intended for both Morton and Sonia.

Lovecraft and Sonia had seen quite a bit of each other in those early months of 1922, and Sonia noted:

After my vacation in Magnolia we each went to our respective homes. Then our more intimate correspondence began which led to our marriage.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 138

We have very little idea of what this “intimate correspondence” might have looked like or consisted of. Some of it was no doubt cajoling Lovecraft into additional visits; he went down to New York to visit her again in September 1922. Some of it must have discussed the possibility of marriage, and we have a surviving excerpt from such a letter, which Sonia incorporated into an article as “The Psychic Phenominon [sic] of Love”; this was eventually published, at least Lovecraft’s portion, as “Lovecraft on Love” in the Winter 1971 issue of the Arkham Collector. Sonia notes on the manuscript:

It was Lovecraft’s part of this letter that I believe made me fall in love with him; but he did not carry out his own dictum; time and place, and reversion of some of his thoughts and expressions did not bode for happiness.

The September 1922 visit was another success; Sonia and Lovecraft both wrote to Providence encouraging the aunts to come, and the younger aunt Annie E. P. Gamwell took them up on it. When Lovecraft and his aunt returned to Providence, Sonia found opportunities to visit in October and November, and when passing through in July 1923 she dragged Lovecraft along to a visit to Narragansett Pier. All these visits suggest a deepening relationship, but they were no doubt precipitated and followed by letters and postcards. Another subject would rear its head in 1923: Sonia was elected president of the United Amateur Press Association.

I got a note from Mrs. Greene asking to be relieved of the unexpected & cataclysmic presidential burden, but have written back urging her to hang on for dear life until Saas, P. J. C., & I get the matter thrashed out. If she resigns, the office will automatically fall on that impossible creature Mazurewicz—1st Vice-Pres.—which of course means utter chaos. You see we have a definite presidential succession, unlike The National with its need for directorial action. But—I shall not try to do anything, or to ask S. H. G. to serve, unless I am absolutely assured of the active & strenuous cooperation of Daas & Campbell.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 23 Sep 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 55-56

Sonia of course had a full-time job, and probably little to no idea what being president of an amateur press association entailed; no doubt her initial generosity had encouraged the votes for her. We have little idea of her personal life during this period, but she was traveling frequently and it appears that it was during this time period (1921-1923) that her daughter Florence (who Lovecraft had met during the 1922 visit) left her home to work as a journalist.

Weird Tales debuted in 1923, and Lovecraft immediately formed a rapport with the editor Edwin Baird and the proprietor J. C. Henneberger. He sold several stories, including Sonia’s “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared in the October 1923 issue as “The Invisible Monster”—which was no doubt discussed between them. Sonia’s accounts of this period suggests that the correspondence was prolific and heavy:

I well know that he was not in a position to marry, yet his letters indicated his desire to leave his home town and settle in New York. […]

After two years of almost daily correspondence—H. P. writing me about everything he did and everywhere he went, introducing names of friends and his evaluation of them, sometimes filling 30, 40 and even 50 pages of finely written script—he decided to break away from Providence.

During our few years of correspondence and the many business trips I took to New England I did not fail to mention many of the adverse circumstances that were likely to ensure, but that we would have to work out these problems between us, and if we really cared more for one another than for the problems that might stand in our way, there was no reason why our marriage should not be a success. He thoroughly agreed.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 136

Strange as it may sound, Lovecraft’s prospects at this point were positive: he had a lucrative ghost-writing assignment doing a story for Houdini for Weird Tales (“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”), there were possibilities for remunerative literary work in New York City, he was doing some considerable revision work for David Van Bush, Sonia had her well-paying job and savings, many of his friends were in New York…while the whole thing was a gamble, there were reasons to be optimistic.

So on 3 March 1924, Sonia H. Greene became Sonia H. Lovecraft.

Being, like me, highly individualised; she found average minds only a source of grating and discomfort, and average people only a bore to escape from—so that in our letters and discussions we were assuming more and more the position of two detached and dissenting secessionists from the bourgeois milieu; a source of encouragement to each other, but fatigued to depression by the stolid grey surface of commonplaceness on all sides and relieved only by such isolated points of light as Sonny Belknap, Mortonius, Loveman, Alfredus, Kleiner, and the like.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 9 Mar 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.102

When Sonia and Howard were living together, they had no need to writer letters to one another. Much of what we know about their marriage during this period comes from diary-like entries in Howard’s letters to his aunts, and occasionally to others. A full account of their marriage is beyond the scope of this article, but  it is notable that their period of cohabitation was not long. Health troubles landed Sonia in the hospital; financial troubles struck them as well—Sonia’s high paying job was gone, a hat shop venture failed, Howard’s efforts to secure employment failed consistently, and the new couple were forced to economize—and by December 1924, Sonia had determined that she had to take a position in the Midwest.

Howard would not follow.

Our marital life for the next few months was spent on reams of paper washed in rivers of ink.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 140

H. P. Lovecraft’s letters during 1925-1926 give our only insight into their married life. For most of that period, Howard remained in New York while Sonia worked in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Chicago, returning to New York for visits whenever she got the opportunity. His letters to his aunts give the flavor of what must have been their almost exchanges:

Her last letter to me before returning sheds so much light on the hard conditions preceding her loss of the post, that I think I will enclose it for you & L D C [Lillian D. Clark] to read.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 26 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.254-255

In a letter just recd., S H suggests that I drown the memory of my losses in a trip to Saratoga the middle of next month, whilst her employers are away—possibly working a call on nice old Mr. Hoag.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 28 May 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.301

Had a letter from S H yesterday, saying that Mrs. Galpin didn’t shew up in Cleveland at all! She’s quite worried, imagining all sorts of kidnappings, wrecked, & such like; but I fancy Mrs. G. was merely too tired out to relish the Youngstown change of cars, so went straight home to Chicago.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 27 Aug 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.367

Another letter from S H, whose prospects seem unfortunately black. Conditions in new place are uncongenial owing to rivalry of those who sell on occasion. She advises me to move—but I stand by my vote & the results of the election & stay!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Oct 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.457

For his own part, Lovecraft’s responses seemed to include terms of endearment:

For nearly two years our almost daily exchanges of letters consisted of each assuring the other of real appreciation. On his part it was a case of “Oh, it isn’t you, my dear, it is all the others.” “You don’t know how much I appreciate you!” etc. etc.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 149

Howard’s initial enchantment with New York had by this time soured. He had no job and was supported by money given to him by his absent wife and a few dollars from his aunts, living in a neighborhood of the city swiftly becoming a slum, and someone broke into his rooms and stole his clothes—and Sonia’s wicker valise. His letters to others showcase his increasingly xenophobic and racist sentiments regarding New York and its denizens, particularly Jews, immigrants, and Harlem. Profoundly unhappy, his aunts suggested he return home to Providence, and Sonia supported the move:

S H endorses the move most thoroughly—had a marvellously magnanimous letter from her yesterday. She may be in Cleveland 2 wks. Or more to come, so there’s no need of bothering her with the packing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 1 Apr 1926, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.585

For the next three years, Howard would remain in Providence, sometimes visited by Sonia, sometimes traveling down to New York to visit with her, sometimes for weeks as when Sonia again attempted to open a hat shop in Brooklyn in 1928. During such periods when they were together, their correspondence must have ceased, or perhaps been limited to cards as Lovecraft took the opportunity to travel to places within reach of New York in search of colonial antiquities. However, this shop failed too, and Lovecraft returned to Providence.

For the next several months we again lived in letters only. He was perfectly willing and even satisfied to live this way, but not I. I began urging a legal separation, in fact, divorce. […] I told him I did everything I could think of to make our marriage a success, but that no marriage could ever be such in letter-writing only; that a close propinquity was necessary for a true marriage. Then he would tell me of a very happy couple whom he knew, where the wife lived with her parents, in Virginia, while the husband lived elsewhere for reasons of illness, and that their marriage was kept intact through letters. My reply was that neither of us was really sick and that I did not wish to be a long-distance wife “enjoying” the company of a long-distance husband by letter-writing only.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 140-141

Howard protested, but eventually acceded to Sonia’s request. No-fault divorce was not available, but under Rhode Island law Howard could file for divorce on the cause of Sonia having abandoned the marriage, and her failure to respond would be proof of the abandonment. While this legal fiction was pursued, Howard failed to sign and file the final decree—so that they were technically still married, even though Sonia believed they were divorced, and Howard uniformly presented himself as such, in the rare occasions when he mentioned his marriage in later years.

After a year and a half of almost daily letter-writing, back and forth, we were finally divorced in 1929, but we still kept up correspondence; this time it was entirely impersonal, but on a friendly basis, and the letters were far and few between until in 1932 I went to Europe. I was almost tempted to invite him along but I knew that since I was no longer his wife he would not have accepted. However, I wrote to him from England, Germany and France, sending him books and pictures of every conceivable scene that I thought might interest him.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 141

Most of our information on Sonia’s life and her correspondence with Howard came through his letters. Now that they were divorced, their correspondence waned, and Lovecraft’s skittishness to talk about his marriage leads to gaps in the record. One rare reference on their correspondence from 1929-1930:

No—you hadn’t previously mentioned the relay’d greetings from the quondam Mme. Theobald; an incident which prompts the usual platitude concerning the microscopic dimensions of this planetary spheroid. My messages from that direction during the past two years have been confin’d to Christmas & birthday cards, but if occasion arises to exchange more verbose greetings, I shall assuredly add your respects & compliments to my own.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, c. Sep 1930, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 264

There must have been periods of greater activity; during Sonia’s 1932 trip to Europe, which led to Lovecraft compiling and revising her notes into a travelogue: “European Glimpses.” She wrote for him to join her in Connecticut in 1933. It may have been at this time that “Alcestis: A Play” was written, if not earlier. It was their last meeting.

After the Hartford and Farmington visit I did not see Howard again, but we still corresponded, on and off, after I came to California; it was here that I soon met Dr. Davis and remained there.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145-146

Sonia H. Greene married Nathaniel A. Davis in 1936. It is not clear if she ever informed Lovecraft of the marriage, or if by that point they had fallen completely out of touch. Lovecraft’s lists of postcards sent from his Southern travels do not include entries for Sonia. She was apparently not informed of his death by his surviving aunt, Annie E. P. Gamwell, or by any of their mutual friends at that time, and did not learn about it until about a decade later, probably after the death of her third husband in 1946.

As in many cases when discussing Lovecraft’s correspondence, we do not have Sonia’s own letters to Lovecraft to go by. Whether he choose not to keep them or whether he did and they were not preserved after this death is unknown. Certainly, such intimate correspondence as a man might have with his wife might not be something Lovecraft wished preserved for posterity. However, unlike most of his other correspondents, we don’t have almost anything of Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence either.

In her memoir, Sonia states:

I had a trunkful of his letters which he had written me throughout the years but before leaving New York for California I took them to a field and set a match to them. I now have only the one in the Rainbow and one which I received from him after I returned from Europe. But there are still about a dozen picture postal cards that he sent me before our marriage, during and afterward. Some are still of some interest.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145

As mentioned, Sonia had been largely if not completely out of contact with the world of things Lovecraftian since they parted in 1933. She was not immediately aware of his death, or of the efforts to preserve and publish his fiction and letters, the appointment of R. H. Barlow as his literary executor, the foundation of Arkham House for that purpose in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, or the beginnings of critical and biographical efforts in works such as W. Paul Cook’s In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Driftwind Press, 1941) and Winfield Townley Scott’s “His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1944). Ultimately, she was made aware of Lovecraft’s demise, posthumous fame, and began to reconnect with friends like Samuel Loveman.

Whether prompted by a friend or on her own initiative, Sonia composed a memoir of her late husband, the raw manuscript of what would become “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” and read part of it to August Derleth in New York in 1947. According to Derleth’s account:

Meanwhile, did I tell you Sonia Lovecraft Davis turned up with some laughable idea of cashing in on HPL’s “fame” and the desire to publish a “frank” book, entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and quoting generously from his letters. She read me part of the ms. in New York, and in it she has HPL posing as a Jew-baiter (she is Jewish), she says she completely supported HPL for the years 1924 to 1932, and so on, all bare-faced lies. I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark. I also forbade her to use any quotations from HPL’s letters without approval from us, acting for the estate. I told her by all means to write her book and I would read it, but it was pathetically funny; she thought she could get rich on the book. She said it would sell easily a million copies! Can you beat it! I tried to point out that a biographical book on HPL by myself, out two years, had not yet sold 1000 copies, and that book combined two well-known literary names. She thought she should have $500 advance on her book as a gift, and royalties besides! I burst into impolite laughter, I fear.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

One salient point is “quoting generously from his letters.” Arkham House had begun the process of collecting and transcribing letters from Lovecraft’s correspondents for the Selected Letters project, but the first volume would not be published until 1964. The letters that Sonia was quoting must therefore have still been in her possession at least as late as 1947.

Post-World War II, and the exposure of the horrors of the Holocaust, public antisemitism was a vastly different manner than it had been during the interwar period. Derleth’s comments shows he was aware of the potential difficulty if Lovecraft’s antisemitism became well-known. While he did not necessarily speak for Lovecraft’s estate, he had received permission from Lovecraft’s surviving aunt Annie E. P. Gamwell to work with Barlow to publish Lovecraft’s work, and Derleth used this as license to be very protective of both Lovecraft’s intellectual property and his image.

Some correspondence from Sonia survives from this period that sheds light on what happened:

Am I to understand that letters HPL had written to me subsequent to our marriage and those he wrote to me afterwards are not my own private property to do with as I choose? That I must not use them in any way I wish? I am not using material he may have written to some else, only that which he has written to me and for; such as my stories & poems revised by him. Do these, too, belong to you?
—Sonia Davis to August Derleth, 13 Sep 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

To be clear: the writer of a letter still has copyright of the contents, even if physical ownership of the letter belongs to someone else. This seems to be the tack that Derleth was taking: in the pretense that he represented Lovecraft’s estate, he was forbidding her from quoting Lovecraft’s correspondence. This was technically a bluff, since Derleth had no such authority…but legal bluster can be useful to a canny businessman. Derleth must have replied in the affirmative, since Sonia wrote:

So upon reflection I wrote to Mr. Derleth telling him I would have my own publisher do the work and that I would use my story of the “Invisible Monster” as revised by H.P. of mine first as well as some very personal letters and poems of his revision.

In reply he shot back a spec. del. letter that all HP. material belong to the estate of H.P.L. and that “Arkham House” (ie. he) alone had full legal rights to its use; and that I was likely to find that the could would restrain the sale of the work, would confiscate & destroy it.

I have written him stating that I had already offered the material to you, but that I may have to retract the offer if I am to be punished for using letters that were addressed to me personally.

Perhaps I am quite ignorant of the law but I cannot see how these can belong to the Lovecraft estate, to Mr. Barlow (as he stated) or to himself! Personally I no longer feel an interest in my past. Other interests have developed since then. However, because Mr. D. & you and others clamored for HPL’s private life with me, I thought it might be a source of income, and at the same time tell some truths that would throw more light on his character and perhaps on his psychology.

Since I do not know the law regarding these matters and as I have no money to start any “fights” it might be the better part of valor to drop the matter altogether, since while I do not fear Mr. D’s veiled threats and open intimidation I’m not in a position to fight.

Mr. D’s method of “high pressuring” me into doing what he wants is not to my taste. It would be interesting to contact the county clerk in Providence and make sure my reasons to believe that H.P. died intestate. If so, how does the property belong to Barlow and Derleth?
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 13 Sep 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

Legal intimidation is a tactic because it works; by this point Sonia was 60 years old and was apparently still in, or had re-entered, the workforce after the death of her third husband. Whether or not one chooses to believe that Derleth was acting in what he thought was Lovecraft’s best interests, his accounts of the affair at the time do not reflect well on him:

I’ve heard from various sources in town that Lovecraft’s wife has suddenly put in an appearance and is causing somewhat of a rumpus. Is this true, or is it, as usual, the kind of ill thought out gossip that is prevalent among the inept citizens of the L. A. Fantasy Society?
—Ray Bradbury to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Lovecraft’s wife did turn up; she is now a Mrs. Sonia Davis, the widow of the husband (no. 3) she had after HPL. She wrote a biography called THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and wanted to incorporate a lot of his prejudices as if they were major parts of his life, seen through her Yiddish eyes; she also wanted to include letters of Lovecraft, but we pointed out that the only way she could do that would be with our permission first. We have heard nothing further from her, though I had a talk with her in New York City.
—August Derleth to Ray Bradbury, 21 Nov 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Given the circumstances, Sonia made a possibly fateful decision:

Here is what I propose to do with the H.P. material. I’ll send you my version of his biography but not his letters. If you find this sufficiently interesting to review for your newspaper you may use it for whatever monetary consideration it is worth to you.

You may revise and edit it to suit yourself, of course, adhering to the general context, but as I shall wish to use it later for publication I trust there will be no trouble in so doing. That is, I wish to sell the story but not the rights to it. Nor do I wish Derleth to make use of any part of it without my permission.

He wants the story and the letters. And as he has stated that the letters belong to the H.P. estate he would probably copy them and return the original.

The entire story is not yet all typed but if you are still interested I shall type it and you may use what you wish.
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 4 Nov 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

“The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” that we have today is a meandering document, often filled with random remembrances that occur on the page as they occurred to Sonia. Scott heavily edited this manuscript, reorganizing it into a basically chronological narrative of the marriage, retaining most of Sonia’s language and insights, but like the manuscript we have it contains few direct quotes from Lovecraft. The memoir was published as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” published in the Providence Journal 22 Aug 1948. A notable omission in this version of Sonia’s memoir is that it makes no reference to burning a trunk of letters. She does show continued anxiety about the subject:

Derleth told me that I cannot & must not quote H.P. not only from his letters but not even anything he said that might not have been in letters. So that if you can manage to paraphrase, it may be alright. Otherwise Derleth will stop at nothing, to hurt me, even if he had to take me into court. And I’m not in a position to quarrel with him and win, for I have no income other than what I earn.
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 6 Aug 1948, MSS. John Hay Library

Derleth had no way of knowing Sonia had submitted the manuscript to Scott, and apparently had not heard from her in some weeks after her had made his legal threats in early September 1947. So he wrote to her:

I have so far had no reply to my letter of 18 September. Meanwhile, I hope you are not going ahead regardless of our stipulations to arrange for publication of anything containing writings of any kind, letters or otherwise, of H. P. Lovecraft, thus making it necessary for us to enjoin publication and sale, and to bring suit, which we will certainly do if any manuscript containing works of Lovecraft do not pass through our office for the executor’s permission.

You will be interested to know that we now have in Lovecraft’s own letters to his aunts a complete and detailed account of how things went during his entire married life.
—August Derleth to Sonia Davis, 21 Nov 1947, The Normal Lovecraft 29

Derleth was describing the diary-entry letters, some of which do describe their married life in great detail, although certainly leaving out many things a man might say to his wife, and vice versa. Sonia apparently consulted her friends about what to do.

Enclosed is a letter from (August) Derleth. Do you think he is “shooting in the dark”? Bluffing? I answered, telling him as long as he has H.P.’s letters to his aunts he no longer needs my version of the story.
—Sonia Davis to Samuel Loveman, 30 Nov 1947, The Normal Lovecraft 28

Some of the Sonia/Derleth correspondence is not accessible to scholars at this point. Although the letters for the critical period at the end of 1947 exist, they are apparently in private hands. However, Lovecraft and Derleth scholar John D. Haefele quoted one such letter in one of his publications:

You are at perfect liberty to destroy those letters from Lovecraft without showing them to anyone. …. You are not at liberty to publish any part of them without our permission…
—August Derleth to Sonia Davis, 19 Dec 1947, Lest We Forget 15

This strongly suggests that the holocaust of letters Sonia describes may actually have happened at the end of 1947 or early 1948. There is apparently a reference to burning the letters written on the back of Derleth’s letter of 1 October 1965 (Arkham House Archive), but it is difficult to believe that Sonia would have waited until 1965 to burn a trunk of letters: she suffered a heart attack in Summer 1948, and in 1960 she broke her hip, forcing her to move into a nursing home. Late 1947 or early 1948 may have been the last period when Sonia was physically able to accomplish such destruction without assistance.

Sonia and Derleth reconciled, her Lovecraft memories and revisions printed in Arkham House books (except for Alcestis and European Glimpses), and they remained good friends until her death. Even with the destruction of these years of correspondence, one or two odd survivals apparently remained. “The Psychic Phenominon [sic] of Love” being one:

Before burning 400+ letters of H.P.L.’s I copied part of one, adding my own version. After many years, I came across it, and am sending you a copy for permission to try to sell it. I do not know where I can sell it; but if I may use it and am unable to sell it, I will use it as part of my biography which has been invited by the Library of Special Collections at Brown University which is publishing my late husband’s works, N. A. Davis.
—Sonia Davis to August Derleth, 29 Nov 1966, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

As for the cards that Sonia had sent to Lovecraft over the years, they suffered a similar fate:

Mrs. Gamwell also gave the children about a hundred picture postcards that Sonia had mailed to Howard. These all held  loving, spirited messages to H.P.L. from his sweetheart in New York. Not knowing their possible value in the far-away future, I did not hold on to any of these cards bearing Sonia’s signature, written in her breezy, happy handwriting. It was plain to be seen, from the messages on the cards, that this pretty woman of writing ability—among her other gifts—really liked H.P.L.! And the strange part of it all was that he had not once mentioned his love affair to us…and we were his very good friends.

The children played for hours with the cards, and they eventually went the way all children’s toys go…in the ash-heap!
—Muriel E. Eddy, The Gentleman From Angell Street 17

That is essentially the end of what we know for Sonia H. Greene’s letters to H. P.  Lovecraft. “Lovecraft on Love” and “Nietzscheism and Realism” are the major letter-excerpts that remain; the former has not been reprinted as far as I can determine, while the latter is available in several collections, notably Arkham House’s Miscellaneous Writings and the Necronomicon Press facsimile of The Rainbow.

In some of H. P. L.’s letters to me he often spoke of reincarnation, but I do not think he believed in it.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 150

We are so fortunate, as readers and scholars, that so many of Lovecraft’s letters have survived. Not only for what they tell us about Lovecraft himself, but about the people he interacted with, the lives and relationships he had with women like Sonia H. Greene. Through his surviving letters to his aunts and friends, we have a deeper, more complete idea of his marriage and his critical formative period in New York. She was a critical part of his life, and we would not know as much as we do about Sonia without his letters.

Yet, there is always that regret that we couldn’t know more. That decisions were made which cost us that inside glimpse at her life with Lovecraft, her love affair with a man who, while he would go on to become a legend, was at once just a husband trying to make the best of it in the big city…and things didn’t work out. They grew apart. The letters and postcards just stopped one day.

As they must. No one lives forever, no relationship lasts forever. Normally when we look at the correspondence with Lovecraft, the story we tell really stops when Lovecraft dies; but Sonia’s story went on…and her story and his are intimately intertwined, even in death.


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

Haunted West (2021) by Darker Hue Studios

Here men and women were confronted, in the very recent past, by conditions that had been forgotten east of the Mississippi for centuries. When men began to write of the West, it was to exploit its more lurid aspects for sensational purposes. Hence, rose the “cowboy” tradition, the “Wild West” tradition—an absolutely criminal distortion of the literary growth of the region and traditions that made a vulgar jest out of what should have been one of the most vital and inspiring pageants of American history. What the ignorant and blundering pens of sensational yellow-backed novel writers failed in doing, the pens of sophisticated arm-chair critics completed. Really good writers, with a few exceptions, shied away from the Western tale, lest they be branded with the yellow-backed dime novelist. It seems to me, from what I’ve read and heard, that most people who have never seen the West, are devided [sic] into classes—the class that believes the West swarms with movie-type cowboys and Indians where bullets whiz continually—and the class that lifts the lip in scorn and rejects all the tales of the West as mere drivel. The truth, as of course you realize, not belonging to either of the above mentioned classes, lies about half-way between. Men didnt [sic] go about with guns slung all over them, shooting at the drop of a hat, hanging rustlers to every tree, chasing Indians twenty-three hours of the day, but life was a fierce and hard grind, and murder and sudden death were common. Now thinking people all over America are beginning to realize the truths of the pioneer West, with the resultant boom in good Western literature—which I hope spells the doom of the Wild Bill dime-novel.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.152

Before the pulp magazine was the dime novel and the nickel weekly; and these early popular media were the crucibles for many of the tropes of pulp fiction: genrefication (western, detective, etc.), series characters (Nick Carter, Deadwood Dick, etc.), catchy titles, fan clubs, etc. It was mass entertainment, cheaply printed, incredibly popular—and spread the legend of the Wild West, which during Lovecraft’s lifetime transitioned into the Old West. The frontier was gone, but it lived on in stories of cowboys, rustling, gunfights, and constant war with Native Americans—and it flourished in the pulps, with hundreds of titles, and made the leap to theater, radio, and finally film. John Wayne’s first leading role was Big Trail (1930), released the same year that Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard began their correspondence.

In the pulp magazines, genre segregation could be strict, but there were exceptions. Occasionally writers would set fantasy, horror, and science fiction stories in a Southwestern setting; usually this wasn’t during frontier days but…there were exceptions. H. P. Lovecraft himself had stories set in the Southwest, almost an entire cycle’s worth: “The Transition of Juan Romero,” “The Electric Executioner” with Adolphe de Castro, and “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil” with Zealia Bishop. While these Southwestern tales would inspire further stories of “Yig Country,” and tales set in the American Southwest,these were not Western stories set in the frontier. The true Weird Western was pioneered by writers like Robert E. Howard in stories like “The Horror from the Mound” (Weird Tales May 1932) and “Old Garfield’s Heart” (WT Dec 1933).

The idea of the Weird Western spread slowly an unevenly; it was hybrid genre that didn’t always find a ready home in every market, for fiction, film, or comic books, though there are plenty of examples of all three. All of these sources, and the periodic resurgence of the Western film in popularity over the decades, from the Spaghetti Westerns, Acid Westerns like El Topo (1970) and Deadman (1996) to gritty Anti-Westerns like Unforgiven (1992), and fanciful weird westerns like Wild Wild West (1999), Cowboys & Aliens (2011), and horror westerns like Bone Tomahawk (2015), have contributed to a rich and diverse array of media for fans and writers to mine for ideas…and for some folks, a sandbox to play in.

Western roleplaying games are a minority in the United States; the field tends to be dominated by fantasy-oriented RPGs like Dungeons & Dragons and its various settings. Yet they exist. TSR, the creators of D&D, published Boot Hill in 1975, Kenzer Co. published Aces & Eights, GURPS published GURPS Old West and included various “Dixie” settings in their GURPS Alternate Earths books, Pinnacle published the weird western Deadlands in 1996 to some acclaim…and in fact published some of the first Cthulhu Mythos-related weird western game material with Adios A-Mi-Go (1998, long out-of-print but available as an affordable ebook.)

Deadlands tends to be emblematic with the problem of bringing the Wild West as a roleplaying setting. The exact dates vary, but most folks consider the “Old West” to be post-the American Civil War (after 1865) and the dawn of the 20th century. This was a period of tremendous historical racism in the United States, encompassing the abolition of slavery, Reconstruction, and the end of Reconstruction. Native American tribes had been forced onto reservations through military force, and kept there with force and laws, their children sent away to schools. Mexicans and other Hispanics peoples were routinely subject to persecution and stereotypes, as were immigrants of all stripes, especially Chinese and other Asian immigrants on the West coast.

Roleplaying games like Deadlands, written mostly by white people for a mostly white audience, and having often absorbed many misconceptions about the Lost Cause and racial stereotypes, were notoriously bad in their presentation of the Confederacy as sympathetic, paid little to no heed to how people of color would feel playing the game, were rife with racial stereotypes (especially with regards to Native Americans, who were often reduced to funny animal names and Dime Novel broken English), and gave little to no thought to the racial tensions and social realities of the turbulent period they were, at least nominally, attempting to depict.

Which, to be fair, is a tall order. Historical racism is a difficult subject to address in any context, when you’ve got a group of people gathered around a table or in an online chatroom, trying to work out a cooperative storytelling experience with dice, not everyone involved is going to even be aware of all the issues at play. Popular media depictions of Native Americans in Western media have strongly colored most expectations about how they “should” be portrayed, much as films like Gone With the Wind (1939) have influenced ideas of what upperclass Southern plantation life was like antebellum.

Mix in the Cthulhu Mythos, and the job might be a little tougher. It’s one thing to make an attempt to produce a setting that directly addresses the challenge of including (and even spotlighting) the diverse array of races, ethnicities, and cultures in the Wild West, and something else to do that while working in concepts and materials that date back to the 1930s. H. P. Lovecraft sketched out a few ideas towards a Southwestern Mythos, but he had no direct firsthand knowledge of the region or cultures, and his depictions of Native Americans and Hispanic characters in particular tend to be rife with dime western stereotypes.

[“]You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this.”
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop, “The Mound”

Which has to be understood to appreciate that Haunted West (2021) by Darker Hue Studios got it right.

Haunted West is a standalone Weird West roleplaying game by Darker Hue Studios, the producers of Harlem Unbound. The game uses the Ouroboros System, which is strongly derived from the Basic Roleplaying System used by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game and its many variants, spin-offs, and equivalents. The game itself draws strongly but not exclusively on the Cthulhu Mythos for the “weird” aspect of the game, and while there are enough mechanical differences that you cannot quite drop a Valusian with a shotgun into your Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition or World War Cthulhu campaign, the actual work to convert the stats is minimal and intuitive. Most of the changes in the Ouroboros System are the kind of advancements that should have been made to CoC about five editions ago, offering greater granularity to the percentile rolls, options and abilities to make characters more effective, and different levels of roleplaying granularity (from breaking out the miniatures for combat to a rules lite experience that focuses less on dice and more on narrative roleplaying). I wouldn’t quite call Ouroboros the CoC-equivalent of a heartbreaker, nor is it a perfect system, but it’s definitely trying to address some of the inherent mechanical flaws of Basic Roleplaying.

Front and center in the game is the focus on who is playing, and the nature of the Old West as an incredibly diverse place—and how to roleplay that. While this technically isn’t the first game where you can be a Black cowboy and find that the Mi-Go are mutilating cattle, it’s the first game that focuses on the actual experience of a Black man or woman (or transgender character!) might work in such a setting, how you might bring together a Chinese immigrant, a Mexican vaquero, a Buffalo soldier and his Two-Spirits spouse, to deal with the mystery of stolen Innsmouth gold, a lone settlement that’s turned into a cult of Shub-Niggurath—or what happens if the Ku Klux Klan get ahold of a copy of the Necronomicon.

From a setting perspective, the historical research is excellent. The natural point of comparison would be Chaosium’s Down Darker Trails (2017), the CoC 7th ed. supplement for the Old West. That book is 256 pages, Haunted West is 800 pages—and it is interesting to compare the differences in approach. Both have large sections devoted to raw mechanics and the history of the setting; both also include ways to incorporate the Mythos into the setting and address issues like playing characters of a different race or ethnicity than your own. Down Darker Trails devotes half of page 11 to the question of ethnicity, noting:

As a player, your choice of ethnicity and gender are two factors that go in to making your character’s backstory. The game does not dictate any advantages or disadvantages to a particular ethnicity or gender, so the choice is entirely up to you.

While this might sound like damning with faint praise, from a historical gaming standpoint (and perhaps especially an historical Call of Cthulhu gaming standpoint), this isn’t bad. While the game has never said “no, you can’t play a Black character,” various roleplaying games and supplements over the decades have given specific mechanical advantages or disadvantages based on a player character’s race or gender, and Call of Cthulhu itself has not always been great about encouraging or expressing diversity; game products like Secrets of Kenya (2007) made an effort to discuss the historical reality of racism, but doesn’t really do a good job of it, often falling back on stereotypes (one of the player professions is literally “Great White Hunter.”) Down Darker Trails doesn’t offer many roleplaying hints in that regard. It seems to be aware of the issues, but doesn’t have a good approach to how to actually approach and resolve those issues.

Haunted West faces the issue right off the bat on page 7:

Can I Play A Character of a Race Other Than My Own?
Yes, if done with respect and care. Will you fail? Likely, yes. We all do. But it’s so important to make the attempt and keep trying. Apologize if you hurt someone; you can’t expect them to accept your apology, but you can do your best to listen and make amends. If the community or group you’re in doesn’t understand or hold space for you to fail and try again, it’s probably time to move on.

There is a lot more detail offered for how to play a character in the game, a lot of history and setting information, but above all else this is a game where the designers consciously went into it with the idea of making it an inclusive experience, of not relying on old stereotypes and preconceptions about the Old West, and making it a game that everyone can enjoy while specifically catering to a diverse audience.

In a game set in the real world, history & geography occupy a weird space: all the detail you could want can be found in actual history books. Players can be pointed toward Wikipedia or other easily-accessible online sources, and there is more information there than can be squeezed into even an 800-page book. Haunted West strives to face this reality by offering perspective, as well as history: the usual narrative of the Old West is centered on the actions of European & American colonization, and this book makes a good effort to show that there were other narratives involved…free Black people, immigrants, indigenous peoples.

So where does that leave the Mythos? Well, the game is first and foremost a Weird West game first, with a heavy Mythos flavor.

Roleplaying games focused on historical periods focus on the history above all else; the point of such products is to provide the players will all the rules and setting material they need to build their characters and play their own game. Sometimes this means a few pre-fabricated towns to use as centers for campaigns, some pre-written scenarios and pre-generated characters, but mostly it involves a lot of history and mechanics dominating the book.

So the Mythos as a presence in the Old West in Haunted West can be a bit vague. There are cults, monsters, tomes, artifacts, weird phenomena, etc. but you don’t get a full “secret history” of the Old West from a Mythos perspective. You don’t get firm dates for when the first Innsmouth kin might have arrived from back East, and by association you don’t necessarily get key personalities and non-player characters. There’s room for tens of thousands of stories, but it isn’t the case where there’s only one copy of the Necronomicon in the territory of Nevada, or anything that specific.

A notable absence from the lore is any reference to the snake-god Yig. Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote almost nothing about the Mythos in the Southwest during the period of the Old West, so writers today almost have a blank slate to write to, and they do in stories like “Showdown at Red Hook” (2011) by Lois H. Gresh. It is not like a sourcebook set around Innsmouth, Arkham, Dunwich or other popular “Lovecraft Country” settings where dozens of authors have set stories or made references from the 1930s through the present day and a really keen writer might have fun trying to incorporate as much as possible, making glosses where stories contradict each other, etc. One of the few things Lovecraft was specific about was Yig, so the absence of the snake-god is notable.

Probably this was a deliberate omission to avoid associating any particular aspect of Mythos-worship to a specific ethnicity or group of people, given the tremendous care given to the depiction of Indigenous peoples in this book, including the (very rare) predominant use of their given names for themselves rather than exonyms (Ndee rather than Apache), etc.

Overall production is excellent; desktop publishing has come a long way, and there are no issues with the formatting. Good use is made of historical photographs & public domain art, while the original art assets are a mixed bag; Kurt Komoda and and Alex Mayo’s work seems to stand out the best. I backed the kickstarter on Haunted West and got access to an early digital edition which is the basis for this review, but the digital and hardcopy editions are both coming out in 2021 and can be ordered at the Darker Hues Studios shop.


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

Editor Spotlight: Lois H. Gresh

I started writing weird SF as a child because I wanted to read stories featuring female protagonists, and I couldn’t find anything. I grew up on a diet of my father’s classic hard SF novels and my mother’s thrillers. The women in the classic SF novels were cardboard characters who served coffee and spooned nutrient broth over blobs in fish tanks, and the thriller heroes were always men.

Modern weird fiction, including the mythos subgenre, must expand to include viewpoints beyond the classic stereotypes. If it doesn’t expand, it will die.

Innsmouth Nightmares is incredibly strong. A lot of the stories are some of the best I’ve read in the field. New twists, new perspectives, and yes, stories with female points of view.

In general, weird fiction has blossomed into a more literary realm. It’s a beautiful field for experimentation, not only in terms of style and structure, but also for exploring concepts such as pain, suffering, kindness, fear, empathy (or lack of it), greed, arrogance, etc., and one of my favorites, the anthropomorphic absurdities we cast on the world around us.
—Lois H. Gresh, Interview: Lois H. Gresh by Lisa Morton (Nov 2019)

There have been many anthologies centered around Innsmouth, the dilapidated colony of outsiders perched on the edge of Massachusetts, where the Manuxet River pours into the Atlantic Ocean, and where the natives swim out to Devil’s Reef on moonlit nights. Over the decades, dozens of authors have expanded off Lovecraft’s story “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and a handful of editors have sought to collect them.

Lois H. Gresh is the first woman to edit an Innsmouth anthology. She had the experience, being a Mythos writer strongly familiar with the existing body of Innsmouth lore, and she had the vision:

This is the book of my dreams. I’ve always been fond of Innsmouth. Directly over my desk, a painting of Innsmouth hangs on an old hook left by the former inhabitants of my house. I spend most of my life at this desk, so Innsmouth is always with me. There’s something very appealing about the tottering village and its shambling denizens, the cults, the dreariness, the turbulence of the sea, and Devil Reef.

When I proposed this anthology to Pete Crowther at PS Publishing, I told him that I wanted to produce a book brimming with extraordinary Innsmouth stories. I wanted to produce a book that I would never grow tired of reading, a book that I would read every now and then for the rest of my life. I think I succeeded.

I requested stories from all the top writers in the weird genre. I desperately wanted Ramsey Campbell, but alas, Pete had Ramsey squirreled away writing a trilogy of Lovecraftian novels, so Ramsey was a bit tanked out to pen a short Innsmouth tale. Almost everyone else in this book—all the writers of weird fiction that readers go ape over. Given my obsession with Innsmouth, I was sorely tempted to add a story, but in the end, decided it would be poor form to write a story for an anthology of which I’m editor.
—Lois H. Gresh, Introduction in Innsmouth Nightmares vii

Innsmouth Nightmares (2015, PS Publishing) contains a solid mix of authors, and perhaps more importantly, a solid mix of stories. In assessing any Innsmouth anthology, it’s difficult not to compare it with every other Innsmouth anthology, from Robert M. Price’s The Innsmouth Cycle (1998) and Tales Out of Innsmouth (1999); Stephen Jones’ Shadows Over Innsmouth (1994), Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth (2005), and Weirder Shadows Over Innsmouth (2013); Ran Cartwright’s Innsmouth Tales (2015)…and other, more obscure collections.

The vision of the editor influences a collection, what they choose to print isn’t decided just by what the writers turn in or what they can get the rights to (hopefully), but what the editor hoped to achieve. Price’s anthology The Innsmouth Cycle, for example, is unsurprisingly backwards-looking. The purpose of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction line was in large part to reprint Mythos material that had been out of print like “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson, to draw aside the curtain a little and look at where the Mythos had come from, rather than push the edges of what it might be or where it might go.

Most Innsmouth anthologies, however, don’t have any focus other than Innsmouth itself. Editors don’t go out of their way to collect bad stories, or to exclude women authors, but there’s usually very little distinction between the individual volumes. If you took the cover of Weird Shadows Over Innsmouth and slipped it on a copy of Tales Out of Innsmouth, few readers would be able to distinguish any difference in terms of content. There’s never been an Innsmouth anthology that focused on the diaspora after the 1928 raid; there’s never been an all-women or feminist Innsmouth anthology, or a global Innsmouth anthology that looks at different Deep One colonies around the world. It’s amazing that one story has spawned over half a dozen anthologies (not to mention full-blown novels), but it’s hard to say if there’s been many really good Innsmouth anthologies.

In that respect, Lois H. Gresh and Innsmouth Nightmares stands apart from the rest in part because of a specific aim for a greater diversity among the writers—and this isn’t some token effort. With Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Lisa Morton, and Nancy Morton women make up a full 20% of the book, which is above average for a Mythos anthology. W. H. Pugmire is represented to good effect, as is Lavie Tidhar. Beyond that, many of the writers are stretching Innsmouth stories in new styles, new directions, far and away from the pastiches which normally fill so many Innsmouth anthologies. While I wouldn’t go so far as to call it “Deeppunk” or make up any other silly name for it, Gresh’s editorial voice is full of enthusiasm. Optimism. These are Innsmouth stories which, by and large, look to the future of what Innsmouth fiction could be, more than what it was and has been.

I hope you enjoy reading this book as much as I enjoyed editing it. If you like tales about Innsmouth, you’re in for a real treat.
—Lois H. Gresh, Introduction in Innsmouth Nightmares x

Was the market ready for future? It’s hard to say. The hardback and paperbacks for Innsmouth Nightmares are long sold out; I can’t even find the ebook for sale. Several of the stories have been reprinted in anthologies, author’s collections, and other places, but it seems likely that this particular anthology is a black pearl, and readers will have to dive into the deep waters of the secondhand and collectors markets if they want a copy.

Innsmouth Nightmares is Lois H. Gresh’s most notable Lovecraftian credit as an editor, but she also edited Dark Fusions: Where Monsters Lurk! (2013, PS Publishing), which is not a Mythos anthology per se, but several of the stories therein contain Mythos monsters.


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

Le Bol Maudit (1982) by Enki Bilal

Et tu sauras ce que je sais…tu connaîtras par ce bol, les secrets les plus terrifiants, car comme moi tu es damné… par Yuggoth le maudit prends!!!
—Enki Bilal, Le Bol Maudit 2

And you will know what I know … you will know by this bowl, the most terrifying secrets, because like me you are damned … by Yuggoth the evil take this!!!
—English translation

“Le Bol Maudit” (“The Evil Bowl”) was the first story that Enki Bilal published, in the Franco-Belgian magazine Pilote in 1971. Over the next few years, Bilal would publish several more short stories in Pilote, including “A tire d’aile” (“On the Wing”), “Ophiuchus” (from the Greek, “Serpent-bearer”), “La chose a venir” (“The Thing To Come”), “Ciel de nuit” (“Night Sky”), “Kling Klang,” “Le mutant” (“The Mutant”), and “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil” (“Close the shutters and keep your eyes open”).

Most of these were very short black and white affairs, some only a couple pages long, with surreal and science fiction themes: astronauts, aliens, mutants, dreams—that would see much broader exploration in his more well-known and longer works such as Légendes d’Aujourd’hui (with Pierre Christin) and the Nikopol trilogy, which was partially adapted in the film Immortel (2004). These early works by Bilal were later collected, first by Minoustchine in 1975 as L’appel des étoiles (“The Call of the Stars”, 1975), containing only five stories, and then by Futuropolis in Le Bol Maudit (1982) containing eight. An English translation of the Minoustchine volume (reprinting “The Evil Bowl,” “On the Wing,” “Ophiuchus,” “Pulse” (“La chose a venir”), and “Close your shutters and watch out!”) was published by Flying Buffalo as The Call of the Stars (1978).

“The Call Of The Stars,
or the dark destiny of men called on by
the unutterable and inconceivable unknown.
Four stories with a Lovecraftian touch,
plus an authentic dream-nightmare voyage
I experienced with my tender companion
To whom I dedicate this collection dark with hope.”
Enki Bilal
—Back cover text of The Call of the Stars

In this early work, Bilal is displaying many of his influences very openly; there are gorgeous full-page compositions that show the influence of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, which was also published in Pilote for a period; scenes inspired rather blatantly from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and there are stories like “Ophiuchus” which is essentially an adaptation of, or at least a variation on, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Bilal hadn’t quite reached his distinctive style of art and storytelling yet, but he was definitely on his way.

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Pages from “Le Bol Maudit”

“Le Bol Maudit” has the most explicit references to Lovecraft, although these are basically just Easter eggs for fans. Appreciation for Lovecraft blossomed in France, and in the Franco-Belgian comics circles during this periods, which would culminate in the special Lovecraft issue of Metal Hurlant in 1979, and still continues today in works like La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019) by Mathieu Sapin & Patrick Pion

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Panels from “Ophiuchus”

From a Lovecraftian standpoint, “Ophiuchus” is probably the most interesting, however. “Beau Rivage” (“Beautiful Shore,” “Pampona Beach” in the Flying Buffalo translation) is an intriguing variation on Innsmouth. A city of an alien race, human enough but decaying, mutating, shunning the sun, participating in the strange cult of Ophiucus until, the distant constellation. None of Bilal’s stories attempt horror, exactly, although a few of them have that surreal twist reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. In this respect, Bilal’s twist on Lovecraft’s ending is fitting: it is one thing to be an outsider among a crowd, not knowing why you don’t belong, and something else again to know yourself truly and completely…and know exactly why, and why you can never go home again.

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Page from “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil”

The most ambitious story, artistically, is the last one: “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” a surreal, fantastic dream-voyage of a young man and woman, with some incredibly elaborate crosshatching and a kind of plot like a more mature, Tolkien-esque version of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” There are some creatures and places here that would not be out of place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, although there is no explicit connection made. Like Lovecraft and Randolph Carter, Bilal inserts himself into his work now and again, most deliberately and explicitly in “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” where he is the male dreamer.

Taken all in all, Le Bol Maudit is a fun collection; the individual stories don’t build up into anything bigger, but they provide an interesting insight into Bilal’s earliest work, and a few nice little Lovecraftian Easter eggs for fans. The Flying Buffalo translations leave a little something to be desired; and chunks of the text go from serif to sans serif without warning. While apparently Bilal did his own lettering, parts of the English translation (translator and letterer uncredited) look like they were done with a typewriter, while others were lettered by hand or used stencils. It would nice to see a new translation into English, perhaps including the stories that never made it into the Flying Buffalo volume…but whether that will ever happen, who can say?

Thanks to Dave Haden at Tentaclii for pointing out a couple things I missed.


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