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“Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 2.43

Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.

In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.

In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision (2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.

Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:

Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 276

In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.

As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:

[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some  housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260

The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:

(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays 5.243

As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.

Except for the final, culminating revelation.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales. 

Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.

When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.

The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.

We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.

There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:

“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.

“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.

Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:

Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143

“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.

No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.
H. P. Lovecraft Collected Fiction A Variorum Edition Vol. 4: Revisions and Collaborations 298

The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.


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

 

 

 

“The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

While visiting Magnolia, that beautiful, exclusive summer resort on the north shoe of Massachusetts, we often walked to Gloucester, which was a distance of about four miles. On our way we passed a beautiful esplanade. One evening while walking along this esplanade, the full moon reflecting its light in the water, a peculiar and unusual noise heard at a distance as of a loud snorting and grunting, the shimmering light forming a moon-path on the water, the round tops of the submerged piles in the water exposed a rope connecting them like a huge spider’s guy-line, gave the vivid imagination full play for an interesting weird tale. “Oh, Howard,” I exclaimed, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.” Said he, “Go ahead, and write it.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do it justice,” I answered. “Try it. Tell me what the scene pictures to your imagination.” And as we walked along we neared the edge of the water. Here I described my interpretation of the scene and the noises. His encouragement was so enthusiastic and sincere that when we parted for the night, i sat up and wrote the general outline which he later revised and edited. His continued enthusiasm the next day was so genuine and sincere that in appreciation I surprised and shocked him right then and there by kissing him. He was so flustered that he blushed, then he turned pale. When I chaffed him about it he said he had not been kissed since he was a very small child and that he was never kissed by any woman, not even by his mother or aunts, since he grew to manhood, and that he would probably never be kissed again. (But I fooled him.)
—Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft 19

Born Sonia Haft Shafirkin to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire (modern Ukraine), by the time that Lovecraft and Sonia met she had been living in the United States some 20 years, had married and outlived her first husband (Samuel Greene), and had an adult daughter (Carol Weld) from that union. Sonia was a successful, highly-paid milliner in New York City, and had gotten involved in amateur journalism. Lovecraft met her at an amateur press convention in 1921, shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and the two began a correspondence which turned into a rather surprising courtship-in-letters. They would marry quickly and unexpected in 1924…but before that, they wrote this tale together.

There is no reason to doubt Sonia’s own account of the story’s genesis, and this makes it difficult to distinguish her prose from Lovecraft’s. The issue is exacerbated because little of Sonia’s own work has been published—her other two known fictional efforts, “Four O’Clock” and the play Alcestis both show evidence of being “touched up” by Lovecraft.  Joshi in volume 4 of the variorum edition of the collected fiction of H. P. Lovecraft notes: “One supposes that Lovecraft retained a certain amount of prose by Greene.” Her image of the moon-path in particular is a recurring motif:

It was in the twilight, when grey sea-birds hovered low near the shore and a rising moon began to make a glittering path across the waters. The scene is important to remember, for every impression counts. On the beach were several strollers and a few late bathers; stragglers from the distant cottage colony that rose modestly on a green hill to the north, or from the adjacent cliff-perched Inn whose imposing towers proclaimed its allegiance to wealth and grandeur. […]

Minutes seemed lengthened into hours, and still that human snake of swaying torsos was seen above the fast rising tide. rhythmically it undulated; slowly, horribly, with the seal of doom upon it. thicker clouds now passed over the ascending moon, and the glittering path on the waters faded nearly out. […]

There was no line of bobbing heads now. The waters were calm and deserted, and broken only by the fading ripples of what seemed to be a whirlpool far out in the path of the moonlight whence the strange cry had first come. But as I looked along that treacherous lane of silvery sheen, with fancy fevered and senses overwrought, there trickled upon my ears from some abysmal sunken waste the faint and sinister echoes of a laugh.
—Greene & Lovecraft, “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”

It is an atypical tale by Lovecraft’s standards, much like his earlier collaborations “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) with Winifred Virginia Jackson. Like those stories, it is not a Mythos tale per se, although it seems likely that Lovecraft is behind the name of “Capt. Orne,” which is the name of one of the families he would later associate with Innsmouth. It has more plot than those dream-tales. The mocking laughter at the end and the strange inevitability of the victims’ doom is closer to a conte cruel than Lovecraft’s other efforts…but the real difference between this collaboration and previous efforts is its fate.

The story was written in 1922, during or shortly after the Magnolia visit (26 June – 5 July); and Lovecraft wrote on 11 Sep 1922 that at a party attended by several amateur journalism folk:

I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Greene read her “Four o’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—Lovecraft to Anne Gamwell, 9-11 Sep 1922, Letters from New York 21

However, in March 1923 a new pulp appeared on the stands: Weird Tales. Lovecraft successfully submitted several stories to this magazine—including “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared as “The Invisible Monster” by Sonia H. Greene in the November 1923 issue. This was, then, Lovecraft’s first commercial collaboration, and Sonia’s only professional publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime.

This is one of the stories that marked the transition from Lovecraft as an amateur to a professional writer—and perhaps it is notable that it was Sonia who partnered with him in that, as she did later in their brief marriage. She was in many ways the catalyst for bringing Lovecraft to New York, which while painful for the man from Providence also led to much personal growth.


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

“The Crawling Chaos” (1921) by Winifred Virginia Jackson & H. P. Lovecraft

The “Elizabeth Berkeley” of “The Crawling Chaos” is Winifred Virginia Jackson—a now fairly well known poetess, formerly active in amateur journalism. The sketch (it is scarcely a story) is based on a curious dream of hers—which formed a sort of continuation of a previous dream of my own which I had related to her. I put the whole business in my own language, & tacked on a sort of aftermath in the Dunsanian style—for the thing dates from my most intensively Dunsanian period. It was my second & final collaboration with Miss Jackson, the first being “The Green Meadow” […] I took the title C. C. from my Nyarlathotep sketch (now repudiated) because I liked the sound of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 191

In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jordan was an active contributor to amateur journalism, and had been associated with H. P. Lovecraft in that regard for some years. Lovecraft published her “Song of the North Wind” in his own amateur journal, The Conservative (vol. I, no. IV, 1916); Lovecraft may have had a hand in revising this and subsequent poems of hers in his amateur journals.

In the following years they would share editorial duties on amateur journals, and struck up a correspondence which led to two prose collaborations: “The Green Meadow” (eventually published in The Vagrant, Spring 1927) and “The Crawling Chaos” (The United Co-operative, Apr 1921). Both used pseudonyms for these stories: Jordan was “Elizabeth Berkeley,” and Lovecraft was “Lewis Theobald, Jun.” Despite the pseudonyms, the writing team was apparently an open secret; Lovecraft’s friend Alfred Galpin identified them by name in a review of the story in The United Amateur (Nov 1921).

Lovecraft describes the process of their collaboration in some subsequent letters:

Of genuinely fantastic dreamers, I have discovered but one in amateurdom—this being Mrs. Jordan. I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jordanian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, & which I am some time going to weave into a horror story, as I did “The Green Meadow” dream of earlier state, which I think I once hewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mind did not extend o far. It was only when I had relate my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. […] The more recent Jordan dream is very vivid, but peters out miserably. I shall use it only as far the point where the narrator reaches the palm tree. The narrator will be a neurotic youth of the Roderick Usher type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 Nov 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 190

The enclosed fragment of a Jacksonian letter, written late 1918 or early 1919, is the nucleus of the story. As you will perceive, the whole bizarre setting comes from an actual dream of the poetess whilst in the clutches of influenza. This element of illness may account for much of the fantastic colouring, though in actual truth no drug was administered. I have, I think, mentioned before, that the genius of W> V. J. can produce hideous conceptions far outdoing any of mine, and remaining ineffective solely because of their creator’s singular helplessness in prose.  […] I kept this dream outline a long time without utilising it—for being basically egotistical, I put mine own work first. Finally, last December, the authoress became impatient about it, so I threw the story together in a hurry. The colouring impressed me as opiate, so I supplies the dopy prologue. Then in analysing the nature of the dream, I found that the dominant points were a hellish pounding and an encroachment of the sea upon the land. Using these two latter “starters”, the denouement was fairly inevitable tome; so that although everything after the ninth line of page five in the printed version is my own, it is only broadly so; the impulse having been supplied by the original data. When I sent the finished story to W. V. J. I was amused by her idea that I must have actually seen the same supernal sights that he saw in the dream. Her overpowering imagination, conjoined to very scanty scientific attainments, makes her vaguely credulous of the supernatural and she cannot get rid of the notion that there may be an actual region o dream and vision which can be independently and objectively seen by different individuals. In this case she declared that I had described details of the strange interior, and of the architecture of the dream-house, which she had plainly noticed but had not described to me; which to her is proof that a common dream experience must underlie the work of both collaborators. […] frankly, I didn’t think the “Crawling Chaos” would going to make such a hit that anyone would notice it.
H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 108-109

The influenza epidemic swept the globe during the final stages of the First World War in 1918. In 1919 Winifred was living and working in Boston, putting out her own amateur journal The Bonnet. She had married an African-American man, Horace Jordan, and in 1919 they were divorced; she resumed her maiden name of Jackson around 1920 or 1921. It was in this fertile period, 1919-1920, that Lovecraft and Jackson shared their dreams and wrote their collaborationLovecraft borrowing the title from his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (The United Amateur, Nov 1920) which begins “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…”

Wetzel & Everts claim in Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance that at this point Winifred V. Jackson was at this point already the mistress of the famed Black editor and poet William Stanley Braithwaite, they were involved in the foundation of the B. J. Brimmer Publishing Co. in 1921, which Jackson would buy when it went bankrupt in 1927. Braithwaite would publish several of her poems in his anthologies, which would also include poets from the Harlem Renaissance. Lovecraft himself was not aware of Braithwaite’s race until 1918, when he wrote a vituperative, racist diatribe upon discovering the influential editor Braithwaite had been awarded the Springarn Medal by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (LRK 137-138). Despite this, in 1930 Lovecraft and Braithwaite apparently had a brief correspondence. Jackson herself may have been of mixed race; she was included among “Colored” writers in William Henry Harrison, Jr.’s Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History, and A Heart to Heart Talk About White Folks (1921).

It is an open question as to whether Lovecraft was aware of the details of Winifred’s personal life; he makes no mention of her marriage or any association with Braithwaite in his published letters or his essays “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion Apr 1919) or “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (The United Amateur Mar 1921), although he was, from the name change, apparently very aware of her change in marital status.

Everts & Wetzel record the rumor that Jackson and Lovecraft were romantically inclined, or at least perceived to be by amateur journalism, but there is little evidence for this. The collaborators continued to associate until 1921, after which they appear to have gone their separate ways, Lovecraft rarely referring to Jackson in his subsequent letters—according to Everts, Lovecraft’s wife Sonia H. Greene would claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”

The speculation of an personal relationship between Jackson and Lovecraft, especially given his racism and her interracial marriage, tends to draw attention away from “The Crawling Chaos” as a work of fiction. Despite the title, the work does not feature Nyarlathotep and has no direct connection to Lovecraft’s Mythos. In the context that Lovecraft gives for Jackson’s portion it is possible to see there an echo of the plague that swept the world in 1918:

Of the future I had no heed; to escape, whether by cure, unconsciousness, or death, was all that concerned me. I was partly delirious, so that it is hard to place the exact moment of transition, but I think the effect must have begun shortly before the pounding ceased to be painful. […] The sensation of falling, curiously dissociated from the idea of gravity or direction, was paramount; though there was a subsidiary impression of unseen throngs in incalculable profusion, throngs of infinitely diverse nature, but all more or less related to me. Sometimes it seemed less as though I were falling, than as though the universe or the ages were falling past me. Suddenly my pain ceased, and I began to associate the pounding with an external rather than internal force. The falling had ceased also, giving place to a sensation of uneasy, temporary rest; and when I listened closely, I fancied the pounding was that of the vast, inscrutable sea as its sinister, colossal breakers lacerated some desolate shore after a storm of titanic magnitude. Then I opened my eyes.

If there is an image from the dream-portion that stands out, however, it is this:

Almost at the limit of vision was a colossal palm tree which seemed to fascinate and beckon me.

Palm trees are not normal for Massachusetts. It is an artifact of the exotic and unreal, intruding on the familiar. The palm tree, as much as anything, says that the narrator is in a different place from the one they know. It is the kind of image that might occur in a fever dream, the out-of-place element excepted through dream-logic.

The origin of the story in a dream echoed Lovecraft’s other collaboration from this period, “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts, and several of Lovecraft’s own tales that had their origins in dreams and nightmares; they parallel his fascination with Dunsany’s dreamland in “Idle Days on the Yann.” It was a period when Lovecraft, in the throes of amateur journalism, was sharing his dreams with others and putting them into proseand Winifred Virginia Jackson was one of those who shared their dreams with Lovecraft.

After her association with Lovecraft ended in 1921, Jackson continued to pursue her own writing and publishing, although this resulted in only two books: Backwoods; Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944).


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

“Poetry and the Gods” (1920) by Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft

Moon over Japan,
White butterfly moon!
Where the heavy-lidded Buddhas dream
To the sound of the cuckoo’s call. . . .
The white wings of moon-butterflies
Flicker down the streets of the city,
Blushing into silence the useless wicks of round lanterns in the hands of girls.
—Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft, “Poetry & the Gods” (1920)

“Poetry and the Gods” was first published in the United Amateur (Sep 1920). It is a collaborative effort between Anna Helen Crofts and  H. P. Lovecraft (who used the pen-name H. Paget-Lowe). Crofts and Lovecraft were both members and officials of the United Amateur Press Association, which set the stage for their collaboration. Little else is known about the creative affair, however: there are no references to “Poetry and the Gods” or Crofts in any of Lovecraft’s published correspondence; it is included on none of his own lists of his fiction, and was discovered and published by Lovecraft scholar George T. Wetzel in the 1950; in his Collected Essays, Lovecraft mentions Crofts only once, in the editorial “News Notes” (July 1921) (CE1.293):

Miss Anna H. Crofts is taking a summer course at Columbia University, where she is delving deeply into the technical secrets of pedagogy.

Anastasia Helen Crofts was a public school teacher for most of her life, retiring from teaching in 1942; according to “Anna Helen Crofts—The Rest of the Story” she married Joseph B. McCuen and passed away in Williamstown in 1975. “Poetry and the Gods” and another story, “Life” (United Amateur Jun 1921) are her only known published fiction.

The exact contribution of the co-authors to the final product is likewise a matter of speculation, as no manuscript or drafts survive. S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz in An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (209) once conjectured:

Probably the impetus of the story came from Crofts; she may also have written the tidbit of free verse in the story, since HPL despised free verse […] The prose of the rest of the story appears to be HPL’s.

Ken W. Faig, Jr. in “The Strange Story of “Poetry and the Gods'” (PDF) however discovered that the free verse was borrowed from “Sky Lotus” by Elizabeth J. Coatsworth, published in the July 1919 issue of Asia. In Faig’s estimation:

If his coauthoress Miss Crofts was responsible for the initial draft of their collaboration, I suspect that the introductory paragraphs concluding with the citation of the enchanting blank verse are most of what remains of her work. Perhaps the basic idea of the six divine bards encountered in Marcia’s dream and the ending scene with Marcia admiring the work of the latest messenger-poet sent by the Gods were also Crofts’─she may also have chosen the quotations from Shakespeare, Milton and Keats. But the richness of classical reference which one finds in the dream sequence certainly owes much to Lovecraft’s collaboration.

Whatever the exact contributions by the respective authors, there is no question that for Lovecraft this was a very unusual story. In the 1919-1920 period he was writing stories like “The Doom that Came to Sarnath,” “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” “The Street,” “The Terrible Old Man,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” and “The Tree”—most scholars find it difficult to believe that Lovecraft wrote:

Attired simply, in a low-cut evening dress of black, she appeared outwardly a typical product of modern civilisation; but tonight she felt the immeasurable gulf that separated her soul from all her prosaic surroundings.

Given that Lovecraft is not known elsewhere to describe décolletage, this may be a fair assessment, albeit a superficial one. Certainly the choice of a female protagonist is unusual for Lovecraft, although he would do so again in other stories written in collaboration with female friends and clients, such as “The Curse of Yig” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground.” Much of the mood and ideas expressed in the later part of the piece echo elements of Lovecraft’s own personal philosophy and which echo somewhat his more famous conceptions:

In thy yearning has thou divined what no mortal else, saving only a few whom the world rejects, remembereth: that the Gods were never dead, but only sleeping the sleep and dreaming the dreams of Gods in lotos-filled Hesperian gardens beyond the golden sunset.

This is reminiscent both of Cthulhu (“In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” /“That is not dead which can eternal lie, And with strange aeons even death may die.”) and a possible inspiration from reading Lord Dunsany. Yet is it not also appropriate for a young schoolteacher, whose only escape some days from prosaic life might be to dip into Milton and Keats, to dream of old gods and lose herself for a time in poetry? Lovecraft, it appears, could certainly relate to that.

Of their “hidden collaborator” Elizabeth Jane Coatsworth, not much needs be said; the striking imagery of her poetry certainly helps set the tone of the story. The general surmise among scholars is that if the free verse was part of Crofts contribution, so too was her failure to properly cite Coatsworth. Whether Lovecraft ever caught the uncredited quotation is, like much of the story, unknown. Certainly, it is interesting to think that Coatsworth, who is best known for his series of children’s books, inadvertently shared a collaboration with Lovecraft.

“Poetry and the Gods” was not the first time a woman writer would collaborate with Lovecraft, nor the last. It was the first of such collaborative efforts that was published, and in many ways it sets the stage for Lovecraft’s future collaborations, where the exact details of contribution are unknown, and the only thing sure is that on this one, Lovecraft did not go it alone.


Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help with this article.

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

 

“Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” (2016) by Veronica Schanoes

Though I can’t deny that Lovecraft has influenced my work, I couldn’t relate to the exalted place he seemed to occupy, and wondered if the difference could be ascribed to gender. More to the point, I made a sweeping generalization rather off-handedly: “Lovecraft does nothing for me,” I said. “That wasn’t the horror the girls were passing around in fifth grade. V. C. Andrews is to girls what Lovecraft is to boys.”

Of course, I was wrong—plenty of women have found Lovecraft very important indeed—but I don’t think I was entirely wrong.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

The degree to which H. P. Lovecraft has become a character as enthralling to fans as any of his creations is evident in the body of fiction that has developed around him. Works like Grant Morrison’s “Lovecraft in Heaven” (1994) and Alan Moore’s “Recognition” (1995) focus on aspects of his life story—his death by cancer, his syphilitic father—and ruminate and expand on the mind of the man who created Cthulhu. Veronica Schanoes in “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” adds to this body of work. In her own words:

In this piece, I wonder about Lovecraft’s own monstrous generation; about the racist horrors that founded the United States and what they mean to someone who saw himself as an avatar of eighteenth-century America; the horror of the Other that took the form of Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, and what that means to me, a a twenty-first-century Jew in New York City.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

While this is a work of fiction, Schanoes takes her impetus from fact: her building-up of the story piece by piece is done with all the care and attention of a hoax—and indeed, her skill is such that if the initial section (“Monstrous Generation”) was published as non-fiction, it would probably be convincing to many. Victoria Nelson’s essay “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies” (1996) made similar suggestive claims that Lovecraft inherited congenital syphilis from his father—but where Nelson was perhaps unaware that Lovecraft’s medical records indicated he did not have the disease (Price, “Did Lovecraft Have Syphilis?” in Crypt of Cthulhu #53, 1988), Schanoes’ artfully insinuations are a stepping stone to more profound revelations.

The true threat is never external—it’s not the dreadful non-Aryan immigrants flooding into the United States; it’s not the inhuman alien beings, worshipped as gods, who would barely notice humanity as they crushed it. The true threat always comes from the inside, the self rising up beyond all reason, beyond even survival. In the end, the most monstrous growth is always already one’s own.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 465

The great insight that Schanoes shows in this piece is to take the common and oft-repeated themes of Lovecraft’s life and literature and to look at them from another angle. Lovecraft declared, on his return to this city of his birth after failing to make it in New York City, “I Am Providence”—which S. T. Joshi took for the title of his mammoth biography. Yet it is Schanoes, here, who takes Lovecraft literally and digs into the history of old Providence; and nothing gets very old without having a multitude of sins.

I write and publish about Jews. Most of my protagonists, unless otherwise specified, are Ashkenazi Jews. Well, why should the goyim have all the fantastic, the speculative, the future imperfect? My editors have mostly been Jewish, too.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

When addressing Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, Schanoes’ perspective shifts. She addresses the audience directly, personally. Why should she not? Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism is a subject that affects her personally—not so much because he personally can discriminate against her, since he has been safely dead for several decades, but his words and influence still survive as something Schanoes has to deal with.

Which is almost a microcosm of the subject of Lovecraft’s discrimination itself. Why does it matter, when Lovecraft is dead and gone? Because he isn’t gone, not entirely. His work lives on. For those whose grandparents survived the Holocaust—and remembered relatives that would not—Lovecraft’s remarks in the 1920s and 30s carry an edge today that people who cannot relate directly do not feel.

I do not like H. P. Lovecraft, and I doubt he would have liked me.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

It would be unfair to point out gaps in Schanoes’ narrative, argue over her presentation of the facts, or suggest nuance to her conclusions. It would also be missing the point. While she quotes accurately from Lovecraft’s letters and the memoir of his wife (Sonia Haft Greene) about his life, this is still a work of fiction, not a polemic essay or hit piece.

What it is is a reflection of Lovecraft from an angle that readers are not used to seeing. Lovecraft scholars and biographers such as S. T. Joshi have not ignored his anti-semitism in the least—without their work in publishing Lovecraft’s letters, Schanoes would not have had the raw material for her piece—but none of them can present Lovecraft as seen through the eyes of a contemporary Jewish woman. The mirror that Schanoes holds up may be a funhouse one, with its little distortions for rhetorical and narrative effect, but it works precisely because the subject is still recognizable.

Veronica Schanoes’ “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016). It has not yet been reprinted.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

Editor Spotlight: Joyce Carol Oates

When I was eleven or twelve years old, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft in the Lockport Public Library, in upstate New York—the collection of Lovecraft stories was large and unwieldy with a distinctive font, which I can “see” vividly if I shut my eyes. The stories that riveted me immediately were “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” At once I fell under the Lovecraftian spell—subsequently I have reprinted Lovecraft tales in anthologies of “literary” stories in the hope of breaking down the artificial barriers and unfortunate prejudices between genres.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft Unbound 

H. P. Lovecraft took time to find his place in the American canon. He died practically in poverty, his work published in pulp magazines, amateur journals, and fanzines. The few attempts at publishing his fiction in hardback were marred by failure. Literary recognition and mass popularity would not come for decades. It was a slow process, and many editors, scholars, fans, and writers helped along the way.

Joyce Carol Oates is the one who crowned him The King of the Weird in a review of S. T. Joshi’s 1996 biography H. P. Lovecraft: A Life.

As an editor, Oates has curated several works featuring Lovecrafts works: American Gothic Tales (1996), Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (1997), Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers (1998), and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 2nd Ed. (2013). These works are not exceptional from a strictly bibliographic point of view: there are no lost fragments published for the first time, no rarities reprinted after years or decades. What makes them special is the custody that Lovecraft keeps: Oates puts him on the page between Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, sharing space with Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson. Oates put Lovecraft among the great voices of American fiction.

If there is a single gothic-grotestque writer of the American twentieth century to be compared with Poe, it is H. P. Lovecraft, born in 1890. […] Long a revered cult figure to admirers of “weird fiction” (Lovecraft’s own, somewhat deprecatory term for his art), Lovecraft is associated with crude, obsessive, rawly sensationalist and overwrought prose in the service of naming the unnameable. […] Lovecraft’s influence upon twentieth-century horror writers has been incalculable, and in certain quarters he is prized for the very traits (lurid excess, overstatement, fantastical and repetitive contrivance) for which, in more “literary” quarters, he is despised. The gothic imagination melds the sacred and the profane in startling and original ways, suggesting its close kinship with the religious imagination […] Lovecraft is a hybrid of the traditional gothic and “science fiction” but his temperament is clearly gothic. his “science” is never future-oriented but a mystic’s minute, compulsive scrutinizing of the inner self or soul.
—Joyce Carol Oates, American Gothic Fiction, 6-7

Her choice for the volume was “The Outsider”, which is closer to Poe than Ray Bradbury in the blend of gothic and science fiction. For Oates, Lovecraft is the transition point in the American Gothic, the fulcrum point at which she tips from “gothic” writers to “just writers” (ibid., 7). Weird fiction is where genres break down, but the gothic vision retains power and influence.

In 1997, Oates curated Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, selecting a collection from his major works and adding an introduction (a slightly edited version of her review of S. T. Joshi’s biography). Taking up her previous cue, Oates approach in the Lovecraft is to present Lovecraft as a writer of the American Gothic, fused with science fiction—but also focuses on his life, dreams (“night-gaunts”), use of setting (“like photographs just perceptibly blurred”), fascination with time, the few women in his stories, and the interconnections between his tales. Her brief survey is told in expressive language and with the occasional wry observation; for “The Dreams in the Witch House”:

Lovecraft seems to have taken for granted that Salem “witches” existed, not considering if perhaps they were simply victims of others’ malevolent misuse of power.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft ix

Lovecraft wasn’t exactly forgotten in 1997; Ballantine, Carroll & Graf, Creation Press, and Dell were all bringing his work out in affordable trade paperback editions, and many of their books would go through multiple printings. What Oates brought to the table was herself: a respected literary writer who didn’t stoop to praise genre fiction, a person who could appreciate Lovecraft for his merits—and encourage readers to appreciate him too.

Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers (1998) brought Lovecraft into the classroom; drawing on her seminars at Princeton, Oates presented the text and notes for dozens of influential stories, including H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.” If her previous efforts presented Lovecraft as a part of the American tradition, this was to make him part of the American syllabus. “Rats” would also feature in the second edition of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (2013); Oates had edited the first edition of this work in 1992 without including Lovecraft, but she added him to the updated edition, with an abbreviated set of notes that observed:

In 2005 the Library of America issue H. P. Lovecraft, a selection of Lovecraft’s tales, giving the outcast writer, in effect, the imprimatur of American classic. By this time Lovecraft’s weird tales had found a wide and enthusiastic readership of a kind the luckless author could hardly have envisioned during his lifetime.
—Joyce Carol Oates, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 2nd Ed. 297

Unlike Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, & Paula R. Stiles, the importance of Joyce Carol Oates as an editor is not in publishing collections of Mythos stories or discovering new Mythos writers, but in helping to propagate Lovecraft outside weird fiction fandom—in her lifetime she had participated in the process that brought him into the greater awareness not only of literary academia but the general audience for American fiction.


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

“Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader

Obed finally got her married off by a trick to an Arkham feller as didn’t suspect nothin’. But nobody aoutside’ll hev nothin’ to do with Innsmouth folks naow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

A significant but often understated plot point of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the focus on a rather conservative human courtship traditions. The Deep One hybrids of Innsmouth want to spread and breed—marry and have children—and do so within the context and framework of human marriage as understood in the late-19th/early-20th century United States. Alternative arrangements like polygamy or group marriage do not appear in Lovecraft’s story; children (and sex!) out of wedlock are just not under consideration in the story itself, even if they were realities of life in the 1920s.

This focus on rather conventional human marriage brings in to Innsmouth stories an element of domestic drama, as exemplified in stories like “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales, but it also allows writers to explore this aspect of the Mythos through the permutations in human experience…all the weird ways people find to have relationships, just add Deep Ones. Except there is always more to it than that when dealing with Ann K. Schwader.

The premise of “Mail Order Bride” by Ann K. Schwader is right in the title: lonely men like George, Phil, Art, and Tony pay the Island Love Introduction Agency, hoping for quiet Filipina wives to cook and clean and keep the beer cold—but Lupe, Tia, Inez and the other women they marry are from a very different island culture. Part of the craft of the story is the Stepford Wives-esque othering of the Innsmouth brides, the subtle exaggeration of the normal difficulties experienced by couples in these situations: differences in language, culture, whether or not to have kids, staying together.

Robert M. Price in Tales out of Innsmouth and Kevin L. O’Brien in Eldritch Blue: Love and Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos both considered this story an update on the Innsmouth theme “of race-mixing, especially with Asians” (Price), referencing Captain Obed Marsh bringing home a Polynesian wife, and that “the miscegenation is still present, since the women are Deep Ones as well as Filipinos” (O’Brien). While the misidentification of the brides as Filipinas by their husbands is present, the racial politics Price and O’Brien read into the story are a red herring. The brides’ characterization as foreign is a cover for their much deeper alienation from their husbands, a layer of the mystery for the brides’ spouses to peel back, revealing a much more disturbing reality.

Procreation, which is the ultimate apparent goal of the mail-order brides in this story, is a Mythos theme examined in many stories—“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and more—but Lovecraft’s racism and views on real-world mixed race unions casts a shadow on the much weirder cosmic miscegenation which is a hallmark of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and its literary descendants. Schwader is accurate to Lovecraft’s overall themes, right down to the idea of using interracial unions as a cover for marriages between human and not-human. Unfortunately, enough old prejudices are still extant that her effort to portray a transposition in gender roles has been mistaken for a regurgitation of racial politics.

It’s gender politics at play in the story…and that goes for the Mythos aspects as well:

This is also one of the few stories where Mother Hydra occupies the stage alone rather than sharing it with Father Dagon, or for that matter being consigned to the wings as is usually the case. This reflects the feminist tone of the story, which is a departure form the way that the creation of human/Deep One hybrids are usually created. The precedent, established by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, is that human males mated with Deep One females, though it can be assumed that Deep One males got it on with human females as well. The point is that it was the males of either species which initiated the contact. While this is understandable, considering the aggressiveness of the males of both species and that both cultures tend to be male-dominated, it also reinforces the role of the female as the passive victim. In this story these roles are reversed: it is the females, led by a female deity, who initiate the contact and the men who are the passive victims.
—Robert M. Price, Strange Stars & Alien Shadows 128

This is ground that Schwanger would revisit in stories like “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003), and it adds another layer to what is already a compellingly-told role-reversal story. A subtle expansion and re-casting of the Mythos, with Mother Hydra as fertility deity, and the female Deep One hybrids as part of an all-female coven has overtones of Wicca and Goddess-worship, and the cohesiveness of the women is another point of alienation from the male characters in the story.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

 

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek

Visit Assam, India, where a British dilettante wakes up one morning covered in bruises and welts, with a dead man in her bed and o memory of what happened in the last 24 hours. Her only clue is a trashed invitation to the exclusive Black Ram Club.
—back cover, Jazz Age Cthulhu (2014)

Jennifer Brozek knew what the readers wanted, and determined to give it to them, good and hard. Mythos fiction as a self-defined genre may be something that Lovecraft and his contemporaries created in the 1920s and 30s, but generations of fans have read through everything they could get their hands on and still clamored for more. The form and tropes of the fiction have progressed, passing through pastiche into a rarified species of fiction—one with its own language of tropes, intimations, and old familiar horrors. Such is “Dreams of a Thousand Young.”

Brozek’s novelette reads like an adventure for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, too pulpish for real horror but hitting its marks. Attention is paid to the accuracy of the setting, the characterization of the British Colonial atmosphere, marked with the unsubtle distinctions of class and ethnicity. There is action and excitement, a new cult and and an old favorite horror, a bloody-minded nun and a penchant for Elder Signs as prophylactic device that August Derleth would have approved of. And there is a beautiful woman who was at the center of a ritual and who may now be quietly gestating something inhuman.

As with “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins, Brozek’s achievement is one of execution and characterization. Lady Helen Keeling is the viewpoint character, and the story rises and falls on how believable and compelling her views are. Rather than the fainting Gothic heroine or the prim and virginal British lady, Keeling is…complicated. Not a slut, but far from innocent; genuinely a victim, but determined not to play the victim; born along by the course of events, but taking her own active role in things as well.

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” is reminiscent of “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer; not because of any inspiration Brozek took, but simply because both authors were working from similar sources. The cults and mythologies of Lovecraft and his contemporaries were often ambiguous, tenuous, sometimes contradicting. Cults didn’t always have names, robes and hoods were optional and often absent; sorcery, sacrifices, and summonings were undefined in capabilities and requirements. The roleplaying game was always much more concrete, defining spells and the names of critters—it is no surprise that the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath which appear in both stories are strongly inspired both in name and appearance by the critter of the same variety in the game.

It is very weird to consider that today some writers are drawing on, not the original fiction by Lovecraft and his contemporaries or even the second wave of fiction by the next generation of writers like Ramsey Campbell or Brian Lumley, but from reference materials derived from those previous works. When writers don’t go straight for Lovecraft and Derleth, but reach for The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia or S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors, the stories that result are no longer pastiche in any real sense; the stylistic aspects of the individual original authors is lost. The material has been through too many hands and minds, a lot of the odd details are smoothed out, and the result is strangely—consistent.

Which is what many readers want from their Mythos fiction.

So Jennifer Brozek gave it to them, with skill and craft.

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” was first published in Jazz Age Cthulhu (2014). It has not been reprinted.


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

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins

Lovers’ Lane was really an old logging road on the side of Goat Hill, which overlooked Misty Valley. On a clear night, you could look out and see the entire valley spread out, with the lights of the town reflected in the Miskatonic River, which wound through the center of the village like a dark ribbon.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” in Tales Out of Dunwich 163

The Dunwich Horror took place in 1928. H. P. Lovecraft never lived to see the decades tick by, highways springing up, World War II, rock & roll, young men with greased-back hair and black leather jackets taking cheerleaders in bobby socks up to Lover’s Lane…

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is a projection of Lovecraft’s Mythos into those decades he never lived to see, and is pitch-perfect in how the characters react, their views and voices in terms of the era. The plot itself is straightforward, almost familiar in its beats. How many times have readers come across a Mythos-related pregnancy? “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft, “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron—and so many others. Female characters have been impregnated by Mythos entities almost since there was a Mythos—before that even, if you count Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal”. Yet old familiar themes can still be potent, in the right hands.

The novelty may have worn off, but Nancy Collins handles the execution with characteristic skill. How would a 1950s community respond to such an event?

Principal Strickland says that having a girl in—well, in your condition, is bad for morale. Carol Anne—you’re the Homecoming Queen! What kind of standard are you folding up to the other girls? If you keep the baby, I’m afraid you won’t be allowed back into class come the new school year!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 178

The desire to save face—either through a “therapeutic abortion” or discreetly sending Carol Anne off to a home for unwed mothers where she can give birth and put the child up for adoption—is almost comic compared to the reality of the situation. Carol Anne’s own agency in the matter is strong (“I don’t care! I’m not giving up my baby!”) despite her mother’s pleadings (“Carol Anne—what will people think?“)…or is it?

It wants you to think I’m the father! That way it’s safe for it to be born!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 180

Most Mythos stories don’t discuss the ugly details of these sexual encounters with Mythos entities, much less their aftermath. Rape is not pleasant, and was not for Carol Anne; humans have had means for dealing with unwanted pregnancies and children for thousands of years, and in recent decades knowledge of and access to birth control and abortion have become more widespread. Collins, working in a contemporary setting, had to acknowledge that Carol Anne had options—and she did.

Narrative impetus in this case is that Shub-Niggurath’s thousand-and-first young must be borne. So Carol Anne’s agency had to be subverted, and her victimization in this story is one of the nastier cases in any Mythos story. All she wanted was to have a little fun at Lover’s Lane with her boyfriend, and because of that she was raped, knocked up, faced the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother in ’50s America…and, ultimately, died giving birth. The story is almost a 1950s fable, to scare girls away from following in her footsteps. Collins goes into far greater detail about the horror Carol Anne suffers at each step, leaving only the erotic details off the page.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Sex and horror go together; titillation and terror are both states of excitement, and sex elicits a thrill to many readers. Pregnancy especially has its place in the horrors that women feel—and for many Mythos stories the result is almost routine: of course sex leads to pregnancy. Maybe the mother will die in childbirth, or maybe it’ll only be the spawn that the heroes have to deal with. The mother herself rarely gets much attention. Here, at least, Nancy Collins does not ignore or downplay the suffering of Carol Anne, nor does she seek to make it erotic. “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is determined to retain the horror of the events, above all else…and it does it well.

Nancy Collins’ “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was first published in It Came from the Drive-In (1996), and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, but did not win. The story was republished in the author’s collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000), and Tales out of Dunwich (2005). It has also been released as an ebook: “The Thing from Lover’s Lane: A Mythos Tale” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

“My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ

I’d always thought Alan was pretty much a fruitcake himself—remember, Milty, this is 1952—because he used to read all that crazy stuff, The Cult of Cthulhu, Dagon Calls, The Horror Men of Lengyeah, I remember that H. P. Lovecraft flick you got ten percent on for Hollywood and TV and reruns—but what did we know?
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 360

The trick of “My Boat” is that Joanna Russ is not telling the same story. The frame is a kind of confession, Hollywood pitch-patter, cynical and jaded and full of bad taste. The confession itself opens as a kind of bildungsroman, focused on the integration of a handful of black teenagers into a rich, all-white highschool, and one drama club kid tagging along. Then there’s the twist, with the title-drop, into straight fantasy; shades of magical realism, skirting the edges of the Dreamlandsbut the narrator isn’t ready. Scoot ahead twenty years, 1972, and it’s a story about regret, missed opportunities realized at lastand the frame comes back around around, past catching up to the present.

It’s a story about lost youth. Intimately, if not directly, it’s a story about H. P. Lovecraft.

H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was never published during his lifetime. Lovecraft who was inspired by his dreams to write some of his most famous stories. Who took inspiration from Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” and built up his own cycle of stories set in a mythical Dreamlands—”The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephaïs,” “The White Ship,” etc.—which tied back around and into his “Arkham Cycle,” stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness. Yet there is a sequel to “Idle Days on the Yann,” which is echoed in Lovecraft as well:

For I thought never again to see the tide of Yann, but when I gave up politics not long ago the wings of my fancy strengthened, though they had erstwhile drooped, and I had hopes of coming behind the East once more where Yann like a proud white war-horse goes through the Lands of Dream. Yet I had forgotten the way to those little cottages on the edge of the fields we know whose upper windows, though dim with antique cobwebs, look out on the fields we know not and are the starting-point of all adventure in all the Lands of Dream.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Shop in Go-By Street”

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“My Boat” is a sequel to the idea of those stories, Lovecraft and Dunsany. Like Russ’ earlier story “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) it is also self-referential. Lovecraft lived, wrote some fiction, and died. The characters are familiar with his works, at least in passing. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is just a weird novel, to a kid in 1952. A fantasy. A dream that teenagers grow out of… and that grown people might try to reclaim, once they’re older and wise enough to realize what they’d missed.

I think Cissie knew what I expected her mamma to be and what a damned fool I was, even considering your run-of-the-mill, seventeen-year-old white liberal racist, and that’s why she didn’t take me along.
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 369

Russ was a woman and a feminist; she was a science fiction fan and writer in a period when the majority of the writers, audience, and editors were white menand for good measure, most of the protagonists too; their love-interests tended to blonde, whether Terran or Martian. She was a perceptive enough critic to know that, and to be able to use it. The race and gender of her small cast of characters says a lot about them, with no apologies.

Jim, the narrator, is a cutting depiction of a young white man who isn’t aware enough of his own prejudices to know that stereotypes aren’t true; Cecilia “Cessie” Jackson doesn’t have that luxury. We don’t get to see Jim grow up, exactly, but hearing his 37-year-old self talk about his 17-year-old self, we see the older Jim is wise enough to be honest and cynical about how wrong he was then. And we get to see a young black woman, mentally scarred by the traumatic murder of her father, not needing any white man to help or heal her.

This is a story that would have been difficult to write before the death of August Derleth in 1970. It’s not just that it references the integration of schools, segregation being officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965. It’s a Mythos story that lives in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, but which looks back at an earlier decade with jaded eyes, looking for what it missed the first time around.

In a Lovecraftian sense, Cessie Jackson is a very different kind of dreamer. Randolph Carter lost the key to the Dreamlands; Dunsany’s unnamed narrator could no longer sail on the River Yann. They both became too mired in mundane life and realitybut not her. Jim is the Lovecraftian protagonist, and Cessie Jackson initiates him into a world he had not even guessed at…and then she makes the transition that Jim is afraid to make. That’s the key and the catalyst to the plot, what drives the older Jim in the final act. How vapid and empty is the agent’s pitch for the “beautiful blonde girl Martian” compared to the strange reality that was Cessie Jackson, the plain-looking black girl with natural hair?

It took fourteen years for “My Boat” to find its way into a Mythos anthology, the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990). That is perhaps less surprising when you look at the kinds of Mythos anthologies being publishedup until Derleth’s death, Arkham House had an effective monopoly, interspersing Lovecraft stories with contemporary works, pastiches, posthumous collaborations, culminating in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969). “My Boat” is an odd fit if filed next to 1930s pulp reprints or pastiches of the same; forty years on Joanna Russ’ still feels relevant and timely today.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)