The Coming of Cormac (1974) by Caer Ged & The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris

“Personally,” I said, “I shared Bloch’s opinion of the stories. There was too much emphasis placed on sex. Once I wrote a very critical letter to Editor Wright about the prevalence of sex in some Weird Tales stories, citing the Conan stories as an example.

Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Lovecraft at Last 43

About the Conan tales—I don’t know that they contain any more sex than is necessary in a delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age. Good old Two-Gun didn’t seem to me to overstress eroticism nearly as much as other cash-seeking pulpists—even if he did now & then feel in duty bound to play up to a Brundage cover-design.

H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 14 Aug 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 382

In the 1930s editor of Weird Tales Farnsworth Wright recognized that sex sells—or at least, that a tasteful nude on the cover seemed to improve sales. Yet Weird Tales was not in any sense a pornographic magazine, and the “delineation of the life of a lusty bygone age” that Lovecraft spoke about was relatively prudish compared to an episode of Game of Thrones. Robert E. Howard would have an occasional female character disrobed, might hint at sex, but it would have been impossible to publish anything relating to male genitalia, penetration, or any oral sex beyond a passionate kiss in the 1930s, even if he had been so inclined to write such things. Even Howard’s stories for the Spicy magazines, which promised more sizzling sex than other pulps, were more likely to involve a particularly hard spanking than coitus, and paragraphs would peter out into ellipses before getting to any sort of explicit description.

Robert E. Howard’s hardboiled fantasy stories of Conan the Cimmerian would long survive him and grow in popularity, and as restrictions on sex in publishing eased (particularly after Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 1959), sword & sorcery fiction began to gradually grow more explicit. Fritz Leiber’s “The Sadness of the Executioner” (1973) for example, features “a deliciously slender girl of no more than sixteen, unclad save for four ornaments of silver filigree” as a violent and insane member of a mad king’s harem, and Leiber doesn’t mind describing her anatomy—but he stops short of pornography. Again, there were limitations to what most publications would accept.

The earliest sexually explicit efforts in that vein were, oddly enough, probably inspired by Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic, which began publication in 1970. “Gonad the Horney” was published in the San Francisco Ball in 1972, and the Tijuana bible style Red Sonja and Conan – Hot and Dry was published in 1977. Both of these sexually explicit little comics were parodies of the Marvel material, much as how in later years Hustler would create This Ain’t Conan the Barbarian (2011). Tongue was firmly in cheek, and the point was generally amusement rather than titillation or telling a good story.

Yet with the boom in paperback fantasy in the 1960s through the 1980s, the market for adult-oriented Sword & Sorcery grew…and a few pornographic novels were published to meet that market segment. Two in particular stand out as of particular interest to fans of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft, The Coming of Cormac (1974) and The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris—and these novels are worth consideration and comparison.

The Coming of Cormac (1974) by Caer Ged

During the fifth cycle of man, before the cataclysm that drove Atlantis from the depths of the sea and split the face of the earth, there was a oneness of the land called Augura by its inhabitants. Though darkness and its creatures and daemons still walked unchained, there rose five kings who rallied civilization and its boundaries. These kingdoms were called Telus,Nebula, Waldrop, Agila and Valana, and war was constant among them.

Beyond these boundaries of man was wilderness. To the south was Sartar with burning deserts and steaming jungles inhabited by savage men of black skin. To the east was the Land of Shadows with the Mountains of Krath barring entrance. To the west were the unknown waters of the Great Sea. And to the north was the frozen wasteland called Bifrost with its warring barbarians.

It was from this bitter land of cold that Cormac came to seek his fortune in the cities of civilization . . .

from The Book of Cormac, Aram Akkad.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 1

“KNOW, oh prince, that between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas, there was an Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars—Nemedia, Ophir, Brythunia, Hyperborea, Zamora with its dark-haired women and towers of spider-haunted mystery, Zingara with its chivalry, Koth that bordered on the pastoral lands of Shem, Stygia with its shadow-guarded tombs, Hyrkania whose riders wore steel and silk and gold. But the proudest kingdom of the world was Aquilonia, reigning supreme in the dreaming west. Hither came Conan, the Cimmerian, black-haired, sullen- eyed, sword in hand, a thief, a reaver, a slayer, with gigantic melancholies and gigantic mirth, to tread the jeweled thrones of the Earth under his sandalled feet.”
—The Nemedian Chronicles

Robert E. Howard, “The Phoenix on the Sword”

The Coming of Cormac was billed as “the first ‘sword and sorcery’ book to ever hit the stands—with plenty of hot far-out, uncensored sex!”—and that statement may well stand the test of time, because while it is not the first erotic speculative fiction novel, it is the earliest one I’ve seen that was blatantly and obviously based on Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories (the title no doubt a reference to The Coming of Conan, an early collection). Cormac of Bifrost is essentially a clone of Conan the Cimmerian (and not far off from another Howard character, Cormac Mac Art). The basic premise of the tale, which involves rescuing a princess and some encounters with giant snakes, a witch, undead, and “demons” along the way is very much in the mold of the 1970s Sword & Sorcery pastiche, right down to casual references to “savage men of black skin,” the very sort of thing that Charles R. Saunders noted in his essay “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism In Fantasy Literature” (1975). Take out the naughty bits and the story could essentially have run in any fantasy magazine or as a script in Marvel’s Conan comics.

The story is very sexually explicit indeed. Like most erotic novels, that is both the promise and the problem: stopping the plot every few pages for a lengthy sex scene tends to disrupt the flow and pacing of the story, while trivial attempts at titillation are more likely to be eye-rolling than enticing:

A half-clad amazon hastened to the summons. The top-heavy girl panted as she trotted before the priestess of Krath. Her massive tits bounced and bobbed beneath thin veils of black gossamer cloth.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 94

In terms of content, a great deal of focus is on rape of one sort or another; the princess Avalona gets used and abused in more way than one before Cormac can rescue her, fulfilling the dark promise of such villains. Cormac, once he is inevitably captured, is likewise abused. Not every encounter is nonconsensual, but this is very much the kind of story where the gaze is unflinching…and that is the point. This is all the kind of X-rated stuff that Robert E. Howard and most fantasy authors that came after him could at best hint at, but never put on the page.

The actual action sequences—such as when Cormac is fighting Yog-Sarez, the great serpent who is the son of the serpent-god Seth—are decently written. There is comedy in the book, although it is not quite what readers might expect. For example, at one point Cormac is in The Labyrinth, “a section of the city known for its thieves, robbers, and assassins” (plainly based on “The Maul from Howard’s “The Tower of the Elephant”) and encounters a pair of familiar characters:

To the barbarian’s left a large, blonde northerner, who looked no older than the Bifrostian, shared a table with a smaller youth dressed in grey garments. The two chattered endlessly of their adventures. Like magpies, they tried to out-brag the other, while guzzling bottles of cheap waterfront wine. Eventually, their ramblings turned to Avalona and a brazen plan to steal the princess from under Onard’s nose and to return her to Heres for the reward. The grey-clad youth’s fingers seemed to trace a path across a yellowed parchment spread before them. Slowly but surely, teh wine took its effect and the pair passed out, sprawled across the table.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 83-84

The pair are patently intended to be Fritz Leiber’s sword & sorcery heroes Fafhrd & the Gray Mouser. Their appearance here isn’t unprecedented; Roy Thomas and John Buscemea had joking inserted “Fafnir and Blackrat” into Conan the Barbarian #6 (1971), and there’s reason to believe that the author here was more than familiar with comic books. At one point Avalona is kidnapped by a rapacious madman with a singing sword looking for his wife Aleta—a reference to Prince Valiant—and later in the novel the witch-priestess summons four demons from the far future who turn out to be, basically, the Fantastic Four. That eventually turns out to be the witch’s X-rated undoing:

Abruptly, the thing stopped and roared. Its gigantic hands fell to tis waist and clawed at the flimsy cloth covering its sex. The blue material tore away, revealing a cylindrical organ of living stone, fully a foot long, hung like a pachydrem. As the creature’s boulder-shattering roars continued, the shaft jerked upward in a throbbing path.

Caer Ged, The Coming of Cormac 148

As Conan pastiche novels go, The Coming of Cormac is a bit below the level of Lin Carter’s Thongor series. The worldbuilding is sparse, the sorcery sparser, and the plot is a bit perfunctory, episodic, and often failing to build tension. The tongue-in-cheek pop culture inclusions are the sole real humor in what is otherwise a fairly cheerless novel of a feckless princess who is passed around and used by one person after another, but without any philosophical meditation a la the Marquis de Sade’s Justine. It accomplishes what it set out to do, but not much more.

“Caer Ged” is an obvious pseudonym, which has been attributed to George Wyatt Proctor, a fantasy fan and novelist. I’m not entirely sure what the basis for this identification is, although a contemporary fanzine Godless #8 (1974) claims “Caer Ged” is also “Lee Wyatt,” which is another pseudonym attributed to Proctor.

The Seductress of Eden (1982) by Mark Farris

My friends say that I am a man who was born out o fhis time, that I should have been one of the Trojan warriors or Hyperborean adventurers I have devoted my life to studying.

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 5

Where The Coming of Cormac was set in a prehistoric past, akin to Robert E. Howard’s Hyborian Age, The Seductress of Eden is set very firmly in the contemporary 1980s. Enter Joseph Kade, a Canadian anthropologist with an interest in fantasy who decides to do some first-hand anthropological exploration of the dark underworld of sex—and ends up in a pulpy adventure that will take him all over the world, meeting (and bedding) all manner of beautiful women, almost getting killed multiple times, and finally stumbling into the ruins of a lost civilization in the Australian Outback while searching for the Phallus of the Old Ones.

If the principal focus of The Coming of Cormac is Robert E. Howard, the focus of The Seductress of Eden is Lovecraft, although the author slips in sly references to the works of Clark Ashton Smith and Howard as well. Kade is caught up in a quest for an eldritch artifact, and the story tends to careen from passionate sexual act to almost gratuitous violence and back again. The pulp aesthetic firmly establishes this as a Lovecraftian fantasy, but one that veers closer to Howardian action, despite references to the Necronomicon and the odd serpent-man:

It stood like a man, about six feet tall, but it resembled a lizard It had green, scaly skin and the head of a snake. It hissed at me and a long, forked tongue slithered out. Its unblinking eyes stared into mine and it raised clawed hands and moved toward sme, dragging an eight-foot tail behind it. […]

“Father was doing experiments with evolution,” said Gloria. “it was his theory that we all evolved from the basic forms of life, encompassing reptiles, and that it was not only possible forus to communicate with them but to evolve back to their forms. This was one of his experiments.”


“Father also believed that the continent of Eden was partially inhabited by a prehistoric race of snake-men. This experiment added credibility to that theory.”

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 111-112

The Seductress of Eden is very fast and loose with the Cthulhu Mythos; this is not quite the setting readers familiar with Lovecraft and Howard will be familiar with. Instead of shoggoths, for example, there are shontothes; and instead of Cthulhu, there is quite literally Satan. The Howardian sword & sorcery elements don’t really come in until very late in the novel, though there they are rather explicit, once Kade picks up an ancient axe:

And I had wielded it before…in other lifetimes. I had fought with it on the steps of Atlantis, protecting my queen. I had wielded it on the wastelands of Cimmeria, a barbarian defending his homeland. I had struck with it in the depths of Nemordia, to free my mate from the lair of a wizard. And now I was using it to save a goddess…

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 235

The main problem with The Seductress of Eden is that all of those past lives, reminiscent as they are of Howard’s James Allison stories, sound like more exciting and titillating adventures than the one chronicled in the book. While the action moves fast, it’s not a particularly deep plot, and the post-climax ending where Kade confesses his sins to a priest feels bowdlerized. A huge chunk of exposition at the end of the novel finally lays bare the writer’s version of what’s going on with the Phallus of the Old Ones, and it is so far from anything a Lovecraft fan might recognize it is almost parody.

Except that is the main difference between The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden: the story is played straight. This isn’t Howardian pastiche except for a couple of paragraphs near the end, nor is it a Lovecraftian pastiche despite the references to the Necronomicon. There are no tongue-in-cheek drop-ins of Prince Valiant and the Fantastic Four. It is an original story which plays out with as much seriousness as it can muster considering that Kade and his new girlfriend have to literally hump their way to their final goal.

Yet when the story assails the reader the Vatican assassins, the sex mutants, the mercenaries, the monsters, the repeated gangbangs, and a sex toy which is quite literally “What if H. R. Giger made a Sybian?,” the result is more like an X-rated serial than a coherent novel. The Seductress of Eden is very much a collision of fantastical pulp elements with hardcore sexuality, and the end result strains belief long before we get to the shontothes or the Golden Phallus of the Old Ones.

“So,” I went on, “now we try to get the scroll and map. And this Contessa has … the scroll?”


“And I have to seduce her to get it?”

“That’s right.”

“This,” I said for about the millionth time, “is amazing!”

Mark Farris, The Seductress of Eden 73-74

As with Cormac in The Coming of Cormac, the protagonist Joe Kade isn’t a rapist—but there’s a lot of rape in the book. Weirdly enough, for all that the story is predicated on Kade encountering the darkest and most lurid parts of the sexual underground, the actual content is a bit vanilla: there are relatively few kinks on display, not many taboos presented or broken. Kade isn’t forced to expand his sexual horizons very far…and that is probably by design. The attraction of this book is the weirdness of its plot more than the weirdness of the sex itself.

The Seductress of Eden was published under the Tigress Books imprint, which also published Brian McNaughton’s Sheena Clayton novels such as Tide of Desire (1983). All of the Clayton novels had Mythos references in them, and it’s possible that “Mark Farris” was a house name that was used by McNaughton as well—however, the other Mark Farris novels for Tigress aren’t known to have Mythos references, and McNaughton himself never made any claim to the name. More to the point, The Seductress of Eden doesn’t read much like a McNaughton novel, who was prone to be much darker and less heavy-handed in his use of Mythos lore.

Women In The Novels

Both The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden are told primarily from the point-of-view of the male protagonists, although Cormac has a few chapters dedicated to Princess Avalona’s viewpoint—those chapters where she is raped. Which presents a substantial difference between the two novels worth discussing.

The recovery of Princess Avalona in The Coming of Cormac is the point of the novel, the central driving plot. She begins the novel as a blushing virgin, and through several chapters of degradation and forced sexual intercourse is used and abused, transported against her will, and finally, after many lives have been lost and the major villains are dead, is comfortable enough in her own sexuality to make advances on Cormac himself. It is not exactly a bildungsroman, but as a tale of Avalona growing up it parallels in some ways a much more X-rated and darker version of Queen Yasmela in Robert E. Howard’s “Black Colossus.” While Avalona never quite gets Yasmela’s agency, she at least comes to overcome her initial sexual trauma and take charge of her own sexual needs and desires.

By contrast, Gloria in The Seductress of Eden starts out the novel as a high-priced escort raised in a family of sex mutants with aspirations to gain the Phallus of the Old Ones to become a goddess, and her every action in the story is bent exclusively toward the goal. There is no innocence to be lost, no self-discovery, and ultimately no redemption of the character. She enters into the novel utterly confident in her own sexuality and repeatedly unfazed by any effort to degrade her through rape or any other form of sexual violence. In comparison with The Coming of Cormac, Gloria has more in common with the witch-priestess Sheheit than she does to Avalona—and that kind of represents part of the odd characterization of women in both stories.

In both The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden present sexuality as inherently positive, at least the relatively limited sexuality on display here. Cormac has no idea why the civilized people are so hung up about the whole virginity business, Kade is protective of Gloria because he loves her, but not overly jealous when she ends up having sex with someone else. While it isn’t quite the aftermath of the free love of the 1960s, sex is definitely not presented as a phenomenon that only happens within the confines of legal matrimony. Yet the women characters who have most embraced their sexuality or try to use sex for their own ends are presented as the ultimate villains.

It is not an uncommon characterization in pornographic works: sexual experience and lack of sexual mores is generally seen as a positive trait, but aggressive or self-serving sexuality is a hallmark of an evil character. This isn’t entirely unusual in fantasy either—in Howard’s “A Witch Shall Be Born” one of the key differences between Queen Taramis and her evil sister Salome is that the latter is sexually active and open about it—but in the context of a pornographic novel, it rather highlights the disparity between male and female characters. Cormac and Kade’s sexual exploits to sate their lusts don’t mark them out as sluts deserving of some dark fate, and they are rarely forced into sex against their will. By contrast, the women in these stories face most of the sexual violence, and most of the consequences of sex, including pregnancy and death.


Publishing has come a long way since Robert E. Howard first wrote the Conan stories. Softcore sword & sorcery novels like Lin Carter’s Tara of the Twilight (1979) have given way to explicit sexual scenes in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. There is more permissiveness in what can be openly published than ever before—yet the fundamental narrative problem of how (and if, and why) to weave hardcore eroticism into the story remains. For The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden, the sex is the point, it’s how they were marketed.

It is really odd to look back at erotica produced before the age of the Internet. While a writer’s imagination might be unlimited, and fanzines were free to publish the occasional nude drawing or naughty limerick without too much fear of the postal censor, as a commercial prospect any sort of really weird fiction or sword & sorcery-based pornographic novel had to be a bit of a daunting prospect—not because it couldn’t be done, but because you had to be able to both advertise that work to the correct audience and make something worth reading. In that respect, The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden are both game attempts to try and meet the needs of a very small and speculative market…and in doing so, they demonstrate how hard it is to produce commercial literature on demand.

Both novels suffer from trying to balance hardcore sex with their pulpy adventures. Howard’s original Conan stories sometimes include lingering gazes at the female form or hints of sexual activities that may happen or are about to happen, but these are largely small titillations that don’t affect the flow of the stories. Erotic fantasy adventure is a difficult prospect at the best of times, as the litany of B-movie sword-and-sorcery films that have struggled to pass muster with rampant female nudity and threadbare plots and acting can well attest.

What’s striking about both of these novels is that they’re coming from about the same place, and even if they don’t use quite the same means, they’re headed for the same goal: to try and capture some of the energy and tropes pulp fiction while injecting hardcore eroticism. On the surface, this shouldn’t be terribly difficult. Read Howard’s description:

Bêlit sprang before the blacks, beating down their spears. She turned toward Conan, her bosom heaving, her eyes flashing. Fierce fingers of wonder caught at his heart. She was slender, yet formed like a goddess: at once lithe and voluptuous. Her only garment was a broad silken girdle. Her white ivory limbs and the ivory globes of her breasts drove a beat of fierce passion through the Cimmerian’s pulse, even in the panting fury of battle. Her rich black hair, black as a Stygian night, fell in rippling burnished clusters down her supple back. Her dark eyes burned on the Cimmerian.

She was untamed as a desert wind, supple and dangerous as a she-panther. She came close to him, heedless of his great blade, dripping with blood of her warriors. Her supple thigh brushed against it, so close she came to the tall warrior. Her red lips parted as she stared up into his somber menacing eyes.

Robert E. Howard, “Queen of the Black Coast”

A lot of what makes pulp fiction work is that readers have to use their imagination. Nothing any writer comes up with will be able to match the sex that Bêlit and Conan have in the reader’s mind. Like the unnamable horrors so often attributed to Lovecraft, to render them in exquisite and clinical detail—to measure Conan’s sword to the nearest millimeter—is to rob them of some of their mystery and magic. If the mating dance of Bêlit in “Queen of the Black Coast” had turned to actual coitus, the entire tone of the story might not have shifted, but the infinite possibilities in the reader’s mind would have collapsed into a single certainty. The possibilities are often much more tantalizing than the execution.

But it ultimately depends on what you’re going for. The Coming of Cormac and The Seductress of Eden draw these comparisons specifically because, like erotic fanfiction they rely to a greater or lesser extent on existing properties. Without Conan, there is no Cormac or Kade. They invite comparison to Robert E. Howard because they are riffing off of Howard. Original works without trying to ape the themes of older fiction might have more leeway to forge their own balance with a more explicit tone, as Martin did in his Song of Ice and Fire series and as Karl Edward Wagner did in his Kane series.

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

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

Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph)

With the release of this zine I hope that Lovecraft is screaming and crying and spinning in his grave.

product description for Strange Bedfellows on etsy

Roleplaying games as currently understood and popularized begin with the publication of the original Dungeons & Dragons boxed set in 1974. The players and designers of that period were typically white, heterosexual, cisgender males—reflecting in many ways the audience of fantasy and science fiction fans at the time—and D&D developed in the middle of a boom in paperback publishing that saw the mass market publication of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and H. P. Lovecraft’s Mythos fiction, among many others. It should come as no surprise that in this environment, with fiction from the 30s and 50s being interpreted for gaming for a 70s audience, a great deal of prejudice was effectively “baked in.”

Yet gaming has never been exclusively male, white, cisgender, or heterosexual—and as the hobby has expanded the gamers and game designers have only become more diverse, and the games have increasingly become aware of and confronted many of the prejudices that passed without question in earlier editions. It is not unusual in the 2020s to run across disclaimers like those in Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios, or this one:

Fate of Cthulhu is a game that deals with many hard topics, including mental health, systemic abuses of power, and the deaths of huge portions of the human species. Make sure all the players are aware of these things and give enthusiastic ocnsent before they begin playing.

Also—Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a racist and an anti-Semite.

There. We said it.

We could give a litany of examples, but they are easy to find with a simple Internet search. Look up the name of his cat, for instance (HPL was over-the-top, even for his time). Go ahead, we’ll wait.

Fate of Cthulhu (2020)

If there is a bit of animus in declarations like those for Strange Bedfellows and Fate of Cthulhu, it has to be remembered that for decades prior to these products very little thought was given to implicit and explicit discrimination against folks based on race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality in gaming products. Many early fantasy settings were implicitly based on a fantasy version of medieval Europe with the assumption that the default human population was largely or exclusively white, and depictions of non-white characters and settings were often rife with stereotypes. Items like the girdle of femininity/masculinity in Dungeons & Dragons were cursed; early editions of the Palladium Role-Playing Game had an insanity table derived from editions of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders that still listed homosexuality as a mental disorder—which spawned the joke that just seeing Cthulhu could turn you gay.

It sounds relatively obvious today that a players need not fear discrimination for their race, gender, or sexuality, and that they can likewise roleplay a character with those identities with discrimination—but historically that has not always been the case.

Having created and explored their characters in the game, played through adventures, developed their backgrounds, it isn’t surprising to see gamers create art and fiction about those same characters. The nature of such works is as varied as gamers themselves; from the first drabbles and sketches in a notebook to lengthy original epics and detailed portraits, from acceptable to all audiences to sexually explicit works intended for adults only.

Such a work is Strange Bedfellows by Caroline Manley (Raph): a 24-page ‘zine on their Call of Cthulhu character Laurence “Laurie” Metzger, an art student at university with a penchant for fencing and the occult. It consists of eight sexually-explicit homoerotic encounters between “Laurie” and various Mythos entities, and the twelve-page short story “In Sleep, What Wakes” starring Laurie, which is really an extended erotic lucid dream-sequence bookended with brief episodes in the waking world.

A tongue ghosts over the seam of his lips, over the still-fresh scar that bisects them, and he opens his mouth eagerly. This time as they kiss, that hand sill holds him in place. It does wonders for his buzzing brain, keeping all its edges dulled, despite how intent it is on drawing him back into paralyzing fear. Back into questioning the way malleable tentacles cling to his form as though trying to crawl beneath his skin. If they weren’t so alien, their curiosity would almost be endearing, but—

“In Sleep, What Wakes” in Strange Bedfellows

Raph has described Laurie as a “nerdy twink with a taste for the occult” and this represents a very different approach to a lot of other homoerotic Lovecraftian works. “Le Pornomicon” (2005) by Logan Kowalsky for example focuses on bears, Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn is a bisexual medley. In all of those stories, the characters tend be sexually aggressive; by comparison, Laurie is more passive and receptive, and that dynamic reflects the odd circumstances of the story. There is a slight BDSM element to the story, but it has to do with the nature of power and leverage rather than the the rather severe submission and pain depicted in “Under the Keeper of the Key” (2015) by Jaap Boekestein.

Like Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk, “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman, or “(UN)Bury Your Gays: A Queering of Herbert West – Reanimator by H.P. Lovecraft” by Clinton W. Waters, the story works in part because it is a story about relationships instead of just sex. Raph explores Laurie’s psychology a bit, their intimacies with the eldritch entity called Gabriel. The psychological trauma which is measured in Call of Cthulhu by the loss of Sanity points is here addressed in narrative terms, as an inability to sleep restfully because of traumatic memories and stress.

Taken as a whole, Strange Bedfellows doesn’t spell out an entire campaign or dive deep into the background of Laurie and Gabriel—but what is there is intriguing, well-crafted, and well-depicted for those interested in such art and fiction. The adult content is unabashed, but then what is there to be abashed about, when it is clearly labeled and everyone who picks up this ‘zine presumably has some idea of what they are getting into? Anyone that wants to clutch their metaphorical pearls at the idea that if they open up pages 10-11 they’ll see a double-page spread of Cthulhu spearing Laurie with an inhumanly oversized phallus should ask themselves what they expected to find in a ‘zine clearly advertised as 18+ and homoerotic.

Tabletop roleplaying gaming has come a long way since its beginnings, and while we cannot say what Lovecraft would have made of it all had he lived to see it, we know that during his life he appreciated and took joy in the fact that other people were having fun with his creations:

I like to have others use my Azathoths & Nyarlathoteps—& in return I shall use Klarkash-Ton’s Tsathoggua, your monk Clithanus, & Howard’s Bran.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.353

The collaborative nature of the Mythos as it was originally conceived by Lovecraft is very much in line with the collaborative narrative of the tabletop…and the nature of such collaboration is that the ideas expressed and how they are expressed are not limited by the imagination of a single creator. Even Lovecraft had limits to his imagination, and to how he could express that imagination. Lovecraft delighted in his metaphorical strange bedfellows…and perhaps Strange Bedfellows will delight those with an interest in Mythos erotica.

Strange Bedfellows (2023) by Caroline Manley (Raph) may be purchased at Etsy.

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

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

Wolff (1971) by Luis Gasca & Esteban Maroto

Luis Vigil, que ne época fazia a revista Nueva Dimensión, tinha me mostrado algumas capas norte-americanas de um gênero resgatado sa antigas pulps estadunidenses: Espada & Feitiçaria. Essas capas eram maravilhosas. Em uma, um guerreiro selvagem protegia uma donzela seminua, rodeados por um conjunto de figuras misteriosas, caveiras, bruxos, fortalezas, dragões… Tudo apenas insinuado. Em outra, o guerreiro montado nas costas de uma gigantesca serpente, com diversas caveiras e outras formas monstruousas, preso em um calabouço. Elas raziam todos os elementos que eu sempre amei. Perguntei a Luis se havia alguma tradução daquelas histórias para o espanhol e ele respondeu que não (anos mais tarde, a editora Bruguera a publicaria). O protagonista das imagens se chamava Conan e o ilustrador era Frank Frazetta.

Quando em, 1969, Luis Gasca me pediu idias para uma história que seria publicada em uma nova revista, props um personagem daquele estilo. Ele aprovou, e assim nasceu Wolff, para a revista Drácula. Eu desenhava o que queria, fazia uma pequena sinopse e ele escrevia os textos finais com a pseudônimo Sadko. Mese depois, começaram a publicar nos Estados Unidos a adaptação do personagem de Robert E. Howard, Conan, no clássico formato dos comics, na revista Savage Tales, da Marvel, com desenhos de Barry WIndosr-Smith e roteiros de Roy Thomas.
Luis Vigil, who at the time was at Nueva Dimensión magazine, had shown me some North American covers of a genre rescued from the old American pulps: Sword & Sorcery. Those covers were marvelous. In one, a wild warrior protected a half-naked maiden, surrounded by an array of mysterious figures, skulls, witches, fortresses, dragons… All just hinted at. In another, the warrior riding on the back of a gigantic serpent, with several skulls and other monstrous shapes, trapped in a dungeon. They brought out all the elements that I’ve always loved. I asked Luis if there was any translation of those stories into Spanish and he answered no (years later, Bruguera publishing house would publish it). The protagonist of the images was called Conan and the illustrator was Frank Frazetta.

When, in 1969, Luis Gasca asked me for ideas for a story to be published in a new magazine, I proposed a character in that style. He approved, and thus Wolff was born, for Drácula magazine. I would draw what I wanted, make a short synopsis, and he would write the final texts under the pseudonym Sadko. Months later, they began publishing in the United States the adaptation of Robert E. Howard’s character Conan in the classic comic book format in Marvel’s Savage Tales magazine, with drawings by Barry Windsor-Smith and scripts by Roy Thomas.
Esteban Maroto, Espadas e Bruxas (2017) 10English translation

In 1971, Spanish publisher Buru Lan published began publishing Drácula, which despite the name had little to do with Bram Stoker’s character, but was a general fantasy and horror comic comparable in some ways to Warren Comics’ Eerie and Creepy in the United States—especially since Warren would, at about the same time as Drácula came out, begin relying heavily on Spanish artists such as Esteban Maroto. At the same time, the paperback fantasy boom in the United States was blossoming with the Lancer editions of Robert E. Howard’s Conan, with covers by Frank Frazetta (who also lent his talents to Warren magazines).

Conan the Usurper (Lancer 1967), art by Frank Frazetta

Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian comic by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith first hit the stands in 1970, and its success helped to spread the fantasy boom to comic books. It was a good time to build your own barbarian…and so, Gusca and Maroto created Wolff, inspired by and in the mold of Conan (or at least, Frazetta’s covers for the Conan paperbacks). The series caught the eye of English-language publishers, and the British publisher New English Library translated and published twelve issues under the title Dracula; Warren combined several issues as a standalone graphic novel, also titled simply Dracula…implicitly competing with Dracula Lives! and Savage Tales, both produced by Curtis, Marvel’s magazine imprint. Full-size comic magazines could circumvent the restrictions on nudity and content imposed by the Comics Code Authority on comic books.

One gets the impression the English publishers of Dracula understood exactly what they were doing; in the intro to the first issue of Dracula, the editors wrote:

The Wolff comics themselves would seem to reinforce these arguments, since Wolff is happy to swear by Crom, Mitra, and Set and throw in other references to Howard’s Conan stories and Lovecraftian allusions. All of which are, in hindsight, a bit odd if Maroto claimed they hadn’t been translated yet.

Dracula #1 (1972)

What happened is that Gusca’s script was changed in the translation. Compare this same scene to that in the 2017 Brazilian Portuguese translation, which is closer to the original Spanish:

Espadas e Bruxas (2017)

The uncredited translator obviously took a few liberties in order to emphasize the connections between Wolff and Conan, inserting the occasional “By Crom!” or whatnot wherever convenient. Whatever injustice was done to Luis Gusca’s script, however, was balanced by accurate reproduction of Maroto’s artwork, especially in the 1973 trade paperback edition, which is larger than the average magazine page size and on glossy paper rather than newsprint.

From the description Maroto gives, he and Gusca appear to have used something similar to the Marvel Method—and the evidence of Maroto’s freed is clear in nearly every page and panel; while more restrained than the other blatantly psychedelic stories in Dracula, Maroto’s backgrounds are often sparse, but with well-proportioned, realistic figures and phantasmagoric tableaux.

Dracula #3 (1972)

Wolff’s adventures follow a series of interlinked quests. Unlike Howard’s Conan stories, the plots tend to be rather straightforward, with few betrayals or moral complexities to vex the hero; but there is much of wonder and horror. This was before Conan had become widely-parodied as a simple musclebound brute, and Wolff often overcomes the challenges set regularly in his path by luck and cunning as much as brute strength or swordplay. Wolff is obviously inspired by Conan, right down to the visual details, but he is not Conan; there is none of the brooding and cynicism that mark Howard’s hardboiled fantasy.

In terms of fantasy comics of the 1970s, “Wolff” is sadly little more than a footnote, much like Dagar the Invincible (Gold Key, 1972-1976) by Don E. Glut and Jesse Santos, or Maroto’s other barbarian Dax the Warrior for Warren’s Eerie (based on his Spanish comic “Manly”), and remembered today largely for Maroto’s artwork than for the stories themselves. These were the barbarians inspired by Conan, both as Robert E. Howard wrote him, and increasingly as Conan was depicted in the artwork and adaptations created by folks like Frank Frazetta, Roy Thomas, and Barry Windsor-Smith.

Aside from translation issues, the full series was only ever collected in English in a scarce Australian edition printed on newsprint in black and white:

So, most collectors would have to hunt down the original issues if they want to see what Wolff’s later adventures were. In other markets, a resurgence of interest in Esteban Maroto’s art have led to reprints like Espadas e Bruxas, but most English-speaking readers who want to admire Maroto’s work will have to content themselves with volumes like Lovecraft: The Myth of Cthulhu (2018).

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

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

“The Mould Shade Speaks” (1919) by Winifred Virginia Jackson

Mrs. Jordan’s serious literary work is all poetical, and her poems may br roughly grouped in six classes: Lyrics of ideal beauty, including delightful Nature poems replete with local colour; delicate amatory lyrics; rural dialect lyrics and vigorous colloquial pieces; poems of sparkiling optimism; child verse; and poems of potent terror and dark suggestion.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (1919) in Collected Essays 1.228

In 1919, Winifred Virginia Jackson was still married to Horace Jordan, and so it is under that name that Lovecraft knew her and her poetry. Lovecraft’s appreciation for her poetry appears genuine, and perhaps he had read enough of her verse to form a solid opinion. Although little-remembered and little-reprinted these days, during her life Winifred Virginia Jackson was a fairly prolific poet, both in amateur journals and in newspapers, publishing well over a hundred poems, some of which were collected in the collections Backroads: Maine Narratives, with Lyrics (1927) and Selected Poems (1944), now both quite rare.

Indeed, very little of Jackson’s poetry has been reprinted, and much of it is uncollected or largely inaccessible for those without access to newspaper archives and obscure and expensive amateur journals, although a selection of poems have been republished in the appendix to Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner and Others. What’s notable about the selection of Jackson’s poems that survive and are accessible is that very few are of that final category that Lovecraft delineated: “poems of potent terror and dark suggestion.” Lovecraft expanded on this in a subsequent essay:

It remains to speak of the singular power of Miss Jackson in the realm of the gruesome and the terrible. With that same sensitiveness to the unseen and the nreal which lends witchery to her gayer productions, she has achieved in darker fields of verse results inviting comparison with the best prost work of Ambrose Bierce or Maurice Level.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (1921) in Collected Essays 2.50

One such poem Lovecraft thought to mention in his letters:

Cook’s Vagrant did not specialise in the weird, & was in general very variable. […] However, quite a few weird things appeared. In JUne 1918 my verses “Nemesis” (later in W.T.) & my old juvenile tale “The Beast in the Cave” (written in 1905) appeared. July 1918 contained a long piece of my weird blank verse which I presented in the guise of comedy, with a comic rhymed framework around it. […] Oct. 1919 contained our old friend “Psychopompos”, & also a shorter piece of weird verse, “The City”, which I contributed under the pseudonym of “Ward Phillips.” Furthermore—an exotic Chinese piece called “Tea Flowers” (based on Wilde & suggesting Lesbianism) by Roswell George Mills, & a rather powerful ghoul-poem, “The Mould-Shade Speaks” by Winifred V. Jackson. A rather bizarre issue on the whole.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert H. Barlow, 17 Dec 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 91-92

“The Mould Shade Speaks” has never been reprinted since it first appeared in The Vagrant #10—which is a shame, because as Lovecraft says, it is a ghoul-poem, darker and more suggestive than most of Jackson’s verse:

The Mould Shade Speaks
by Winifred Virginia Jordan

I hide at early dawn, gray-clothed,
 I rub my fingers cold
Against my face, dark-browned and loathed,
 To better see the world
I loved and walked in some old dream,
 That hangs about me still,
And wonder if ‘neath sunshine’s gleam,
 I forged my silent will.

My voice you hear when storm-fiends sack
 The sunbeams from the sky;
I shriek with joy when earth grows black
 And jangling thunders cry.
I clutch with glee the raindrops white
 For my will’s evil hap,
I hold them, shiv’ring in their fright,
 Within my musty lap.

I hate the noon-high sun whose eyes
 Seek out my spawn, my moss,
With smiles for ferns, where lizards rise
 And crawl the leaves across.
I hate the murmurs that reel round
 When sunbeams get within
My slimy gulches, without sound,
 That I keep black as sin.

But when night strikes the sunbeam’s doom
 I wrap myself in black,
And stalk, a hydra-headed gloom,
 Red fears astride my back;
Then I set out my tumorous plague,
 I seed my foul decay:
My touch has feel of menace vague
 That gnaws at edge of day!

And I climb up the heights of air
 To spray my poisoned breath,
I swish my skirts upon trees where
 I leave the mark of death;
I never sleep, I never rest
 I cherish but life’s tears,
And hug close to my sexless breast
 The scourge of charnel fears!

Gravestones, particularly older ones which have been long exposed to the elements and uncared for, tend to become host to lichen, molds, fungi, moss, creeping vines like ivy or kudzu, even algae if the environment is wet enough. Even as the bones and flesh that moulder in the grave are slowly consumed, the names and inscriptions may be covered or effaced by the decay of the grave itself—and that is the “mould shade” of Winifred Virginia Jackson’s poem, the animate spirit of that decay made manifest, anthropomorphized with fingers and skirts, shrinking from the sun, leaving its mark on stone and wood, setting up baleful miasmas. There is an almost Poe-esque quality that recalls “The Conquerer Worm” which has a similar structure and may well have inspired it.

It is easy to see why Lovecraft may have liked this poem, ghoulish as it was.

Thanks and appreciation to David E. Schultz for his help and assistance.

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

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

“I Remember Conan” (1960) by Grace A. Warren

The tall barbarian?
He who came with the rough gusto of the west wind?
Aye—I remember Conan!

Grace A. Warren, opening lines of “I Remember Conan” in The Conan Grimoire (1972) 138

Although Robert E. Howard died in 1936 and H. P. Lovecraft in 1937, the study of the life, letters, and work of Howard have often lagged behind Lovecraft. This was not for want of fans; Donald Wollheim consulted Lovecraft on the possibility of issuing a collection of Howard’s fiction shortly after the Texas pulpster’s death. However, circumstances were different: it took time to settle Howard’s estate, which went to his father Dr. I. M. Howard. Doctor Howard was not familiar with publishing, and with his son’s agent Otis Adelbert Kline worked to receive compensation due for stories his son had sold and to place what unpublished works remained—but various projects to get Robert E. Howard into print failed to be financially feasible, and unlike Lovecraft there was no one who thought to deposit Howard’s collected correspondence at a local university, no energetic duo like August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, who founded Arkham House specifically to put Lovecraft in print.

By the time Arkham House did publish the first hardback American collection of Howard’s fiction, Skull-Face and Others (1946), Dr. Howard was dead…but Robert E. Howard’s posthumous career was just beginning. Arkham House had shown the viability of small presses dedicated to science fiction and fantasy, and pulp authors from storied publications like Weird Tales were in demand among the burgeoning fan movement. Gnome Press began publishing the Conan series in 1950, and after five books had exhausted most of Howard’s finished Conan material—at which point L. Sprague de Camp produced Tales of Conan (1955), a series of Howard non-Conan stories re-written as Conan adventures, and then the original novel The Return of Conan (1957), a novel by Björn Nyberg and L. Sprague de Camp.

Although Conan and Robert E. Howard hadn’t hit a mass audience—that would have to wait for the release of the Lancer paperbacks in the 1960s with the iconic Frank Frazetta covers, the Conan the Barbarian comic book by Marvel beginning in 1970, and finally the 1982 film of the same name starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as the eponymous barbarian—organized fandom activity around Howard began to pick up. Robert E. Howard had never quite been forgotten: there are many references to him and his work in the 1940s fanzine The Acolyte, which was nominally devoted to Lovecraft, for example. Yet in 1955 the Hyborian Legion was formed, and among the fanzines put out was one called Amra, named after Conan’s pseudonym among the pirates of the Black Coast.

Like most fanzines, issues of Amra weren’t intended as scholarly journals the way modern works like The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard and Pulp Studies is, but it was a step in that direction, a place where fans who wanted to talk about Howard and the characters and settings he created could share their insights and thoughts, fanfiction and poetry, art and cartoons, essays and articles. During its fairly long run, Amra attracted some interesting names (including Frederic Wertham of Seduction of the Innocent fame, who would go on to write The World of Fanzines in 1973). It took decades more work for Howard studies to be properly established, with a pure-text movement and the publication of Howard’s letters, much as had been done with Lovecraft, but Amra played its part.

But what could Conan be to me?
Father of fatherless children?
For who should train such sons to manliness?
Not I alone.
Who should shelter daughters fair?
Not I alone!

Grace A. Warren, lines from “I Remember Conan” in The Conan Grimoire (1972) 138

Grace Adams Warren (born Marguerite Grace Adams) and her husband Dana Thurston Warren appear to have been involved with organized fandom from at least the 1960s through the 1990s, though exact dates are hard to come by. Her poem “I Remember Conan” appeared in the ninth issue of Amra vol. II (January 1960), and is reminiscent of such works as “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman and “The Acolytes” (1946) by Lilith Lorraine—fan poetry, a pure expression of sentiment. She would have written that in the years between the last of the Gnome Press books, but before the Lancer paperbacks, when it really was fanzines like Amra that were keeping the memory of Robert E. Howard and his favorite barbarian alive.

It is easy now to forget how precarious memory can be—how easily the public forgets, how few characters find an audience, how many pulp authors lie forgotten, their works no longer read or published, no one much caring whether they’ve fallen into the public domain or if they were ever written at all. It is easy to overlook, in this time of corporate-driven properties and big-budget films and streaming adaptations, that such works are often only possible because of continued fan-interest, fans who take the original material and comment, study, and build on it over time. Nowadays, there are wikis and websites, discussion groups and discords to facilitate the kind of communication that was carried out at the speed of a manual typewriter and a mail carrier’s measured pace.

For Howard studies in particular, fan contributions tend to be overlooked. The pure text movement that began in the 1970s emphasized the changes that had been made to the published stories and the wider setting and Mythos of the Howard tales, by editors and pasticheurs like L. Sprague de Camp, Lin Carter, and others. And there was quite a lot of non-Howard material dealing with Conan that would be published over the years, from original novels, comic books, film adaptations, video games, tabletop roleplaying games and more. If you’re going to draw the line between Howard’s original work and a “official” (in the sense of being authorized by the estate or its agents) pastiche novel like The Return of Conan, critical interest in even more derived works like The Leopard of Poitain (1985) by Raul Garcia-Capella, The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate (2019) by Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi, The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and Sangre Bárbara (2021) by El Torres, Joe Bocardo, & Manoli Martínez is perhaps understandably low.

Yet these derivative works are worthy of study and appreciation in their own right. They have something to say about Howard’s characters, and they represent—as Grace Warren’s “I Remember Conan” represents—how inspiring Robert E. Howard’s writing can be, that it drives fans to create and remember, long after Howard’s own untimely death.

You too will remember Conan,
The tall barbarian,
He who came with the rough gusto of the west wind—
Aye—even as I remember Conan!

Grace A. Warren, last lines of “I Remember Conan” in The Conan Grimoire (1972) 138

“I Remember Conan” was first published in Amra. Vol. II, no. 9 (1960), and was reprinted in The Conan Grimoire (1972).

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

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

“Hairwork” (2015) by Gemma Files

Picture for a moment what it might look like if you could visualize the spiderweb connections of the Cthulhu Mythos, with each story a node, each line a connective thread. “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” “The Dunwich Horror,” and “The Call of Cthulhu” would be dense starbursts, referenced by dozens of successive stories…and further out from the “core” of Lovecraft’s Mythos tales would be the less popular tales, the revision and ghostwritten stories which contributed little to the collective mythology…or were simply less popular with fans and authors. Far out on the periphery, barely connected to anything else, is “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft.

In 2015, Gemma Files added a few lines, a new nodal point: “Hairwork” is one of the very, very few works which dared to do anything with Marceline Bedard and “Medusa’s Coil.”

“Redbone,” he says. “She a fine gal, that’s for sure. Thick, sweet. And look at that hair.”

“‘Redbone?’ I don’t know this term.”

“Pale, ma’am, like cream, lightish-complected—you know, high yaller? Same as me.”

Gemma Files, “Hairwork” in She Walks in Shadows 99-100

She Walks in Shadows is a collection of stories that revisits Lovecraft’s Mythos from the view of the often-ignored and neglected women characters. Marceline Bedard is arguably one of the most prominent and interesting of these, if only because so rarely did Lovecraft ever write a woman of color into his stories, much less give her a prominent role. There are many possible reasons for this: the story is only incidentally connected to the wider Mythos, for instance. Most important, though, is the failure of Lovecraft to develop anything of the internal life and motivations of Marceline. She is presented as a kind of femme fatale, an occultist, but why she does anything in the story is utterly absent. If she has any deeper plan beyond marrying Denis de Russy and posing nude for a portrait, it is never revealed. Likewise, her backstory and that of her great hair are left utterly mysterious.

From the perspective in which the story seed was first presented to Lovecraft, and the perspectives with which he told it—white man telling the tale to another white man—the absence of Marceline’s side of the story is perhaps understandable. Yet the absence is still present; the reader only gets one side of the tale.

So Gemma Files fills in the gap, providing something of Marceline’s side of the story, her motivations and background, and perhaps more importantly, what happens next.

It’s kind of odd to say that this is almost a familiar approach. So many stories in weird fiction of this era were written from a white male perspective and centering around the death of some supposedly-evil woman that the revisiting of these stories from the woman’s perspective is almost a mode unto itself. Stories in this mode include Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz, “The Head of T’la-yub” (2015) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, and Lavinia Rising (2022) by Farah Rose Smith.

In comparison with those works, it has to be said that Gemma Files’ “Hairwork” stands up well. She does not directly work to contradict Lovecraft’s story, but works around the facts by providing a motivation and tying it into the background she supplies, one that works very well. References to the wider Mythos are still fairly thin: Lovecraft didn’t leave much to work with, and unlike Victor LaValle in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) who chose to re-center the story around the Cthulhu-cult, Files appears content to have left it on the periphery of the Mythos.

The most substantial change is the vague suggestion that painter Frank Marsh may have familiar connections with the Marshes of Innsmouth—and who knows but that someone may pick up that thread someday? And probably the most radical change in the story is the suggestion of what the hair itself might be:

And then there’s the tradition of Orthodox Jewish women, Observants, Lubavitchers in particular—they cover their hair with a wig, too, a sheitel, so no one but their husband gets to see it. Now, Marceline was in no way Observant, but I can see perhaps an added benefit to her courtesenerie from allowing no one who was not un amant, her intimate, to see her uncovered. The wig’s hair might look much the same as her own, only longer; it would save her having to … relax it? Ça ira?

“Yeah, back then, they’d’ve used lye, I guess. Nasty. Burn you, you leave it on too long.”

Gemma Files, “Hairwork” in She Walks in Shadows 100

Black hair is tied up in so many aspects of history, culture, fashion, and racial discrimination that it is a difficult to know where to start. The focus on hair as a defining trait of Marceline Bedard, given her biracial or multiracial heritage, is something that is rarely examined by critics and scholars. Lovecraft was vaguely aware of some of the efforts that went into hair straightening from his time in Harlem, but like a lot of aspects of Marceline’s life, he doesn’t focus on it. A blank spot on the canvas for some worthy writer like Files to fill in.

In keeping with the overall plot of “Medusa’s Coil,” “Hairwork” gives Marceline Bedard means, motive, and depth—but she is still the villain of the story if not necessarily the antagonist. Lovecraft’s tale casts Marceline as a victim, essentially blameless except for the one-drop rule, but Files gives her animus, and the deliberation in what she does makes her something other than an unfortunate woman trapped between two men. In many ways, that makes her both more terrible and more interesting than Lovecraft’s original portrait of the Paris priestess.

It is, overall, a very skillful take on what might be one of the most difficult Mythos stories to revisit, and the success of it is reflected in its publishing history: since first appearing in She Walks in Shadows (2015) and its paperback edition Cthulhu’s Daughters (2016), “Hairwork” has been reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2016 Edition, The Dark Magazine (Aug 2016), and Best New Horror #27 (2017).

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

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

“I Hate Queers” (1936) by R. H. Barlow

Meanwhile let me wish you all success with the realistic novel or character study—”No Right to Pity”. Material which ‘must be written out of one’s system’ has a very excellent chance of being genuine art—no less so when it comes hard than when it comes easy. And semeblance to a ‘chronicle of actuality’ is not to be deplored unless all dramatic modulation & implied interpretation be absent. Don’t hurry with the work—but let it unfold itself at whatever rate makes for maximum effectiveness. A subjective or quasi-autobiographical novel is often a stepping-stone to work of wider scope. Certainly, many books of the kind have received the highest honours in recent years.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 Jul 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 353

By early Summer 1936, Robert Hayward Barlow’s focus had turned to prose, poetry, and publication—the amateur journals The Dragon-Fly that Barlow managed to print using the press in the small shack (which Lovecraft had helped with during his last visit) were well-received by many. Barlow’s original fiction efforts ranged from fantasies like the “Annals of the Jinns” to post-apocalyptic vignettes like “The Root-Gatherers.” They showed promise, and Lovecraft was keen to encourage his young friend’s literary efforts.

Yet all was not quite well with R. H. Barlow’s home life.

Col. Everett D. Barlow suffered from what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder. From the hints and suggestions in R. H. Barlow and Lovecraft’s letters, it appears that the colonel was irascible, with periods of depression. Retired from the army and spending most of his time with his wife and youngest son at their homestead in DeLand, Florida, the old man was probably difficult to escape, for both R. H. Barlow and his mother, Bernice. The strain in the marriage would eventually lead to separation and divorce, but for Bobby Barlow, there were few opportunities to escape…

…which is what, essentially, R. H. Barlow’s sudden trip to Providence, Rhode Island to visit Lovecraft was.

It isn’t clear from R. H. Barlow’s autobiographical writing as to when exactly he came to realize he was gay, but there is evidence that around 1936 he was grappling with issues of sexuality and sexual identity. While it isn’t clear if he ever broached these matters with Lovecraft directly, there are hints elsewhere:

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced in any way by Cities of the Plain. This remarkable study in sexual perversion is sui generis.

August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 8 Jul 1936, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Cities of the Plain was the 1927 translation of Marcel Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921/1922), a novel which deals with homosexuality and jealousy. By itself, this isn’t necessarily telling; Derleth was notably relatively open on reading about and discussion of sexuality (there are claims that he was bisexual, see Derleth: Hawk…and Dove (1997) by Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky), and perhaps Barlow felt more comfortable bringing up the book with Derleth than Lovecraft. Yet it could be a sign of Barlow’s growing interest and awareness of gay issues, especially as related to himself.

R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft in Providence from 28 July to 1 September 1936, Since they were seeing each other every day, there was no need to write letters, so the surviving accounts of the trip come from Lovecraft’s letters to his other correspondents. One thread from such an exchange with Derleth stands out:

Speaking of impromptus—enclosed are a triad of modernistic character sketches which Barlow wrote the other day without any effort or premeditation whatsoever. He pretends to despise them, but I rather think he’d like to see them in one of the little magazines which you so kindly listed for Pabody. What do you think of them? Would you encourage R H B to revise & submit them, & to pursue further endeavours along the same line? He could grind out this stuff endlessly if there were any demand for it. It seems rather in the Story line.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 22 Aug 1936, Essential Solitude 2.746

I read Barlow’s stuff with a good deal of interest, but must regretfully report that while it has the promise it is as yet pretty unformed, and not likely to see publication. Also, it is extremely difficult to read, owing to the fact that RHB is not up on paragraphing, etc. Structurally, the pieces are pretty bad. I Hate Queers has the most promise, but before the really chief characters are introduced, we get 4 pages of tripe about people who do not concern the leads at all. Nobody would take a story like that, though the best bet for Barlow’s emergence into little magazine print would be Manuscrupt, 17 West Washington, Athenos, Ohio. I have made a few marks here and there in one or two of the stories, though I did not contribute the usual amount of marginal notes owing to close typing. […] The use of long-winded, platitudinous expressions annoys, but despite all this I should think there is hope that RHB may make something out of such material as this. Let him drop at once any air of sophistication he may have. Affectations may serve a purpose to one’s self, but not in print. […]

No, RHB’s tales are far from the Story line: Story’s are crisp and clear, Barlow’s are jumbled. I Hate Queers might be revised to some good end, but much of it would have to be cut, and some staple point-of-view maintained throughout. He shifts point-of-view constantly, which is very confusing and not good creation. Frankly, the stuff shows sloppy writing: I can easily believe that he just dashed it off.

August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 Aug 1936, Essential Solitude 2.747, 748

Barlow appreciated your criticisms immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wnts to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him—but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—“The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion. However—it’s just as well to let the kid work the realism out of his system. At the moment he seems to think that the daily lives & amusements of cheap and twisted characters form the worthiest field for his genius. Plainness in style will develop with maturity.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.748-749

This is the first and last mention of R. H. Barlow’s “I Hate Queers”—a piece that is not known to survive and has never been published. Most likely, like much juvenalia it ended up in the ash bucket, never to see the light of day. Yet it is impossible to read that title, and the surrounding comments on the work, without delving into some speculation.

The suggestion of autobiographical elements and the need to write something out of his system recalls Barlow’s later, very much explicit “Autobiography,” which was written as an extension of the psychoanalytic therapy he underwent in his twenties. One can easily imagine a literate young man attempting a quasi-autobiographical story; Robert E. Howard had done much the same thing with Post Oaks & Sand Roughs, and Arthur Machen with The Hill of Dreams, so Barlow was in good company.

The title itself is plainly homophobic, yet Barlow himself was homosexual, even if he hadn’t had his first experience with another man yet. Barlow’s “Autobiography” opens in 1938 at age 18 as he roomed with the Beck family in California, with his attraction to the male form already fully developed, at least if such passages as this are any to go by:

I could not decide which if the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. he had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, drssed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage.

R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” (1944) in O Fortunate Floridian 410

Keep in mind that this was Barlow in 1944 looking back at himself in 1938, so he could have been impressing his then-current comfort level with his sexuality on his past self—but if it is accurate to his teenage feelings, this may suggest that Barlow had passed through any phase of doubt or confusion before this point—and perhaps he was still in that period of self-discovery in 1936 when he dashed off this short story.

This is important because the title “I Hate Queers” is very provocative, designed to establish and evoke an emotional response from the reader. After all, in the very homophobic 1930s, who would publicly disagree? Who would stand up and say they don’t hate queers? This suggests that the expressed prejudice of the title might be performative: the closeted gay character who emphasizes their homophobia to deflect suspicion about their own sexuality…or, perhaps, a heterosexual character who is preoccupied with being mistaken for gay because they know what discrimination that will bring.

It is fun to speculate; certainly Barlow would not have been able to be open about his burgeoning sexuality with his family, and perhaps not even with his few friends like Lovecraft and Derleth. Even discussing Proust or showing them “I Hate Queers” might have represented a risk, albeit a considered one, with any hint of personal interest disguised as literary interest or effort…and there was reason for Barlow to be concerned. Derleth was upfront about it:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.

August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

“I Hate Queers” stands out in Lovecraft’s correspondence as one of those fascinating possibilities which have been lost to time. We’ll never really know what the story was, unless an archive of Barlow’s teenage stories shows up at some point. It was a different world then, for LGBTQ+ folks, and it took decades of hard work and legislation to begin to win them recognition and equal rights with heterosexuals…rights and recognition which, sadly, have continually faced opponents dedicated to restrict, redefine, and rescind them. To turn back the clock to when gay men like R. H. Barlow struggled to express themselves even to their closest friends and relatives for fear of imprisonment and fines, censorship and blacklisting; and faced blackmail and violence simply for appearing to be different.

Barlow’s title is expressive of an age and attitude I had hoped was dead and buried, but there are still bigots today who would say it proudly…and that, perhaps, is a more subtle horror than the realism which Barlow had tried to express. For it is still as real today as it was in that earlier century.

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

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Her Letters To Lovecraft: Lillian M. Galpin

Here’s some news that can’t wait for a letter. Alfredus—Grandpa’s little Galpinius-child—is married! The event occurred last June, but The Boy kept it a secret for a while—perhaps waiting to see whether or not it would turn out well.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 27 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.154

According to census data, birth records, and her gravestone, Lillian Mary Roche was born on 16 Nov 1903 in Lowell, Massachusetts, one of six children of Irish immigrants Maurice and Elizabeth Roche. Her family was living in Chicago, IL in the 1920s, and Lillian was attending the University of Chicago and in the final year of her undergraduate degree when she married Alfred Galpin, then finishing his master’s degree at the same university. The marriage occurred on 23 June 1924, and initial prospects did not appear to be poor—Alfred was fluent in French and had a position as an instructor in that language at the Univeristy of Michigan secured. It would end with Lillian’s death in 1954…and as far as public records go, there is little to add to that. The Galpins had no children, and if Lillian left any record, it has not been published.

Yet things were not all right with the marriage…and that would lead to one of the oddest and briefest (one might say, tangential) correspondences in Lovecraft’s life. The story is not one that Lovecraft or anyone else has told directly, but has to be pieced together from different records, references in Lovecraft’s correspondence, and other odds and ends.

AUGUST 27, Wednesday. Did I mention that Alfred Galpin, Madisonian, friend of Lord and L (whatshisname) and myself, incidentally, went and got married some time ago? Hully gosh! He, Howard! Next I suppose CAS, SL, RK, and even JFM and perhaps even GK will join ranks.

George Kirk, Lovecraft’s New York Circle 28

H. P. Lovecraft came in contact with Alfred Galpin around 1918, when Galpin was still in high school, through their mutual associate Maurice W. Moe. They shared an interest and involvement in amateur journalism, and developed a robust correspondence. Lovecraft predicted great things for Galpin, but neither man shared everything with the other. When Lovecraft eloped in March 1924 to marry Sonia H. Greene, he didn’t inform Galpin (or anyone else) until after the fact; when Galpin married Lillian Roche a few months later, he didn’t inform Lovecraft right away either.

Ex-President Alfred Galpin, having been married in June, 1924, last autumn accepted a post as Instructor in French at the Rice Institute, Houston, Texas, perhaps the leading university of the Lone Star State. His interests are veering more and more away from literature toward music, and after suitable years of study he hopes to be recognised as a pianist and composer.

H. P. Lovecraft, “News Notes,” United Amateur 24, No. 1 (Jul 1925) in Collected Essays 1.356

For young, untenured university professors, going where the jobs are isn’t unusual, then or now. Yet the Galpins did not end up going to Paris. Instead, about a year after their marriage, Alfred and Lillian went to Paris:

The little rascal sailed from New Orleans (3d class) on the 14th of last month, & has since been imbibing true Parisian accent & colour whilst his wife studies at the Sorbonne. They inhabit a rather costly hotel in the Rue Madame, & Galpinius does not seem to be disappointed in the least—as yet—with the storied city of his dreams.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Jul 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.313

Most of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence mentions Lillian indirectly; they were not apparently correspondents at this time, and if they exchanged letters after 1925 there is no evidence of it. She was, for the most part, mentioned only indirectly as Lovecraft related news about Alfred Galpin to his various correspondents. It is somewhat ironic, given how nebulous and tangential the bulk of these passing references are, that it is only through Lovecraft’s letters that we get a picture of Lillian Galpin.

The story unfolds in his letters:

Speaking of Galpin—he is now in Paris studying, having gone thither in June with his wife. The latter is returning ahead of him on the Majestic—arriving, as coincidence would have it, this very day—& Loveman & I expect to see her & ply her with questions anent her brilliant spouse & his Gallic sojourn.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 18 Aug 1925, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 77

Arrival documents confirm that Lillian Galpin arrived, without her husband, in New York City on 18 Aug 1925. Why she left Paris is not clear, although in other letters Lovecraft notes that Alfred Galpin was experiencing financial difficulties (his father, who died in 1924, had left the bulk of his estate to a nephew also named Alfred Galpin). This is the first real hint of trouble in the marriage, although Lovecraft goes into no details—and Lovecraft himself was at the time semi-separated from his wife, living in Mrs. Burn’s boarding house at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn while Sonia was working in Cleveland to help support them both, visiting New York at intervals.

Alfred Galpin wrote to Lovecraft ahead of time to greet his wife at the pier and help her out; Sonia was in town at the time, although due to leave for Cleveland in a few days. Lovecraft, not sure how best to handle the situation, wrote Lillian a letter which was to be delivered to her when she came ashore, giving his phone number and enclosing photographs of himself and Samuel Loveman, so she could recognize them when they came to assist with her luggage.

Dear Mrs. Galpin:—

Your gifted husband having informed our local circle of easthetic dilettanti of your impending arrival on the S.S> Majestic, & having delegated to use the agreeable responsibility of showing you such sights & salient points of interest as you may care to inspect hre, I herewith take it upon myself to facilitate your location & identification of the circle in question. Mr. Galpin tells me that you will call me up by telephone, but it occurs to me that I may not have given him the number of this haven of remunerative guests; in which case you will look in vain through the book for a telephone in my name. Let me, therefore, here state that the correct number is MAIN 1401, at the Brooklynward end of which a proper sentry will be posted during the day of your arrival as estimated byt he White Star offices—Tuesday, Aug. 18.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian M. Galpin, 16 Aug 1925, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 261-262, MSS. John Hay Library

What followed was one of those comedies of errors that in another century could have been solved with a ten-minute call on a cellphone.

The next day—Tuesday the 18th—we were up early & on the watch for Mrs. Galpin’s telephone call. S H had to go out, but arranged to leave the numbers of the places she visited, so that I might reach her when Mrs. G. communicated. Meanwhile I busied myself with reading & correspondence—& framed an inquiry for the Post Office concerning an important envelope from Clark Ashton Smith, containing a letter, a story, & several poems, which was mailed to me last March & failed to reach its destination. Thus the day passed—when at three o’clock the Burns boy brought up the card of Mrs. Alfred Galpin! The steamship letter had failed to reach her; & after a five-hour search including inquiries at police stations, public libraries, & heaven knows what else, she had come upon the place through a vague remembrance that it was in Clinton Street, & that its number had three figures beginning with 1 & ending with 9. Beginning at 199, she had worked along the street northward, trying 189 & 179, & finally stumbling on the correct spot at 169.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.353-354

Lovecraft’s 1925 diary entry for 18-20 Aug 1925 covers the essentials of Lillian Galpin’s visit (Collected Essays 5.165-166), while his letter to his aunt has a much more detailed, expanded account of events. One has to imagine Lillian Galpin, after a six-day crossing of the Atlantic, arriving in a strange city and randomly knocking on doors until she finds her husband’s friends. It was here that Lovecraft gave his description of her to his aunt:

Mrs. G. was undecided about the duration of her stay; though waning finance dictated a very brief sojourn,whilst her trunk had already been scheduled for through transportation to her parents in Chicago. Three days seemed a logical period, though she would like to obtain a local position & settle semi-permanently till the American return of The Boy. At length she decided to plan on leaving Thursday night, on a late train. Mrs. Galpin is a small person of no especial beauty, strongly resembling the portrait of Mrs. McMullen (Lillian Middleton) which you will find in the second (green-covered) issue of The Rainbow. She is descended from the most ancient Norman nobility domiciled in Ireland—the de Roches—& Alredus is strongly thinking of changing his name to hers, because of its greater aristocratic significance. Some of the kin of this family, the Burke-Roches, are of international social pormienncel whilst Mrs. G’s own father would be the 21st Earl of Fermoy if he would renounce his American citizenship. A proper family for the reception of Grandpa’s Boy—I can see him as Alfred de Roche, in a panlled coach with his new coat-of-arms on the door! Mrs. G. was, like Alfredus, an infant prodigy; & is a graduate of the University of Chicago. Her literary background is ample & profound, & appears to be united to an excellent taste & keen intelligence; in short, the match seems in very way a suitable one for The Child, whose genius deserves a kindred environment. Alfredus himself, I learn, is developing into a typical Parisian character. He wears his hair long—longer, in literal truth, than his wife’s—& even tried to grow a beard till he found it impossible. His scornful repudiation of literature is complete; & he not only laughs at his wife for reading, but refrained from telling her that he had ever followed letters himself—so that the Galpinian essays & critiques which I shewed her came as a complete surprise!

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.354-355

There is a Baron Fermoy in the peerage of Ireland, and the Burke Roche family do hold it, but someone got the other details wrong. More compelling is the idea that Alfred Galpin didn’t see fit to tell his wife anything of his amateur journalism career, despite the fact that he had once been president of the United Amateur Press Association in 1920-1921 term. That Lillian was resolved to be separated from Galpin until his return to the United States the following year, and looking for work to support herself, speaks somewhat to their marital difficulties—and one has to wonder if the Lovecrafts saw the parallels with their own situation.

After the play we took a taxicab to the Erie ferry near the White Star dock, & fetched Mrs. Galpin’s hand luggage to 169, where she took a room on the ground floor. En route we took refreshments at the Scotch Bakery. Finally, we dispersed for slumber; Ms. Galpin deciding to devote the morrow to job-hunting, & indicating her intention of rising early, perhaps before the rest of the household—returning some time in the afternoon, & attending the meeting of The Boys at Kirk’s ex-partner’s—where S H also planned to attend. […] I last spoke of Wednesday the 19th, on which date I rose early & wrote letters till mid-afternoon, when Mrs. Galpin returned from her fruitless industrial quest. Upon her arrival she spoke of the night before–which, thanks to the negligence of busy Mrs. BUrns–had not been one of rest. It seems that the downstairs room has not been kept as immaculate as some others herabouts, & that its couch has an undesirable population of invertebrate organisms which resent the intrusion of mere mortals to a highly vindictive extent! Accordingly Mrs. G. was far from harassed, & in the morning held an interesting conversation with Mrs. Burns—who apoligised profoundly & let her have the room at a reduced rate.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.355-356

Fresh across the Atlantic, without her husband, in a strange city, and then faced with bedbugs. Lillian Galpin’s New York adventure was not shaping up to be a good one. Lovecraft himself had long been discouraged with job-seeking, and was not surprised by her lack of success. They went out to dinner, and then an evening with the Kalem Club. When they returned to 169 Clinton, the exhausted Lillian must have realized she was facing another night with bedbugs.

The residual trio proceeded to 169; where Mrs. Galpin, after inspecting her room, decided she could not rest. Accordingly—& with many apologies for having delivered a guest unwittingly into an arena of sanguinary monsters—S H & I decided that Mrs. G. had better stop at some haven of undisputed immaculeteness & desirability; hence I assisted in the transfer of her effects to the celebrated & dignified Hotel Bossert in Montague Street, where she obtained an excellent seventh-floor room for four dollars.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.356

This was, however, not the last injury that Lillian suffered at Burn’s boarding house:

On this occasion I proceeded home, where I found Mrs. G. already arrived after a last & unavailing early morning interview ith a possible employer, & a last & earnest conversation with Mrs. Burns anent a fresh case of robbery in this delectable retreat! It seems that when packing in haste the previous evening she had left heind a somewhat valuable silk nightgown—which was now missing, & which has not been heard from since. Which of the sundry transient inhabitants to accuse one cannot say—but fortunately Mrs. G. is a philosopher, & able to dismiss life’s casual losses with a shrug & a sigh. We now endeavoured to set out upon that course of sightseeing which malign circumstance had thus far delayed—but again the Fates interposed, & the entire morning was wasted at the Erie & white Star piers in a fruitless attempt to locate Mrs. G’s trunk, for which she had failed to obtain a receipt, but which probably went through to Chicago. We did, however, recover the missing letter with its pictorial encloserues, which latter I wished to preserve.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.357

They did retrieve the letter, which is why it is not preserved in Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others. Sonia was due back in Cleveland by an earlier train, to which city she invited Lillian to visit; they then helped Lillian see what she would of New York in her few remaining hours.

Since all museums close at five, it was now too late to see more than one; & this was chose without difficulty, snce Mrs. G’s chief wish in N.Y. was to inspect the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum. Arriving in good season, & prviouslt surveying the French rooms (as you & I did) we proceeded to cover the colonial exhibits in detail; & Mrs. G. displayed a genuine interest & acute knowledge in remarking upon the objects displayed. She purchased the dollar handbook of the oclleciton, & means to become something of an authority on Georgian America whilst her effulgent lord & master absorbs the antique charm of mediaeval Paris.  […]

Mrs. Galpin, being exceedingly fatigued by continuous exertion, sent her regrets & went to her hotel to rest; but I went down & saw S H safely aboard the Cleveland train—incidentally carrying her a letter from A E P G which had just arrived. […] Now proceeding to the Bossert, I met Mrs. G. & transferred her values once more to 169, for later transportation to the train. She obtained some light refreshments—cheese crackers, orange marmalade, chocolate, & fruit, & served these whilst I began a letter to The Boy. In due time she added her section, & under separate cover we added the postcards obtained during the afternoon, as a supreme inducement for The Child to stop off in New York next June upon his return to the United States.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.357-358

It was typical of Lovecraft to write joint letters with such friends were available; there would be nothing more suitable than for Lillian Galpin to include a brief note to the letter Lovecraft was writing to her husband. Regrettably, Alfred Galpin destroyed much of his early correspondence with Lovecraft c.1930, including their joint letter. This is why Lillian Galpin might be considered a “tangential” correspondent—the one letter Lovecraft wrote to her she didn’t receive, and the one letter they wrote together doesn’t survive.

After completing her section, Mrs. G. rested on the couch & slept soundly whilst I finished the epistle at length. At 11:00 I fared forth to secure a taxicab, which I found only with great difficult & alarming loss of time. Returning with it, I awakened Mrs. G. with as much gradualness & as little violence as possible, after which the expedition hastened in the cab across Brooklyn Bridge & through the town to the Erie ferry, just in time to miss the 11:50 boat which had been mentioned as the one connecting with the Cleveland-Chicago train! For a moment, dramatic despair supervened; but in another instant a clerk had cleared the skies by mentioning tht according to Daylight-Saving Time we were a full hour early, the real boat being the 12:50 by the local clocks. Saved! We now proceeded to a neighbouring cafeteria, had coffee & read books at a table which commanded a view of the clock, & in due time returned to the ferry & sailed thereon. Reaching the other side, I assisted the luggage to the 1:25 train, & bade Mrs. Galpin convey my regards to S H upon meeting her, & to Alfredus upon writing him.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.358

That was the last time that H. P. Lovecraft and Lillian Galpin met, though he would continue to hear from her. In fact, rather shortly he would get an urgent letter from his wife regarding Lillian.

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, wrecks, & 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, 19-20 Aug 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.367

Lovecraft was probably correct; after the trials and hectic travel of the last few days, Lillian was probably happy to be home…although again, this was back in Chicago, without her husband. How she spent the next year is not clear; Alfred Galpin was desperate for money to continue his music studies in Paris, even asking Lovecraft for a loan, and Lovecraft reported that his wife prevailed on Galpin’s mother to send a $250 cheque to cover his needs (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.451-452). In 1926, she passed through New York again to take ship to bring him back to the States:

MAY 4 […] Met, the other day, Galpin’s wife: she went back to Paris on the Leviathan, and expects to bring him back ere long….

SEPTEMBER 9 […] Guess old Galpin isn’t coming from Paris either, as I hear his wife is going back and they’re to say another year. There’s bedlam for you.

George Kirk, Lovecraft’s New York Circle 87, 98

By this time, Lovecraft had left New York and so missed a reunion with Lillian; while Alfred Galpin may have wished to stay in France, they did apparently return to the United States in 1926, with Alfred taking a position at Northwestern University in Evanston ( a suburb of Chicago) teaching French and Italian. The 1930 Census shows Lillian employed as a clerk and living with Alfred in Chicago, but likely he would return home to Appleton, Wisconsin in between terms. Lillian did not apparently accompany him.

In 1930 Alfred finished his M.A. at Northwestern, and spent another year (1931-1932) in France; whether Lillian accompanied him is not clear, although a 1932 news article shows she was applying for jobs in Appleton. When Alfred returned to the United States, he took a position at Lawrence College (now Lawrence University) in Appleton. It is in these letters from Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin after the second trip to France that we get more hints of discontent in the Galpin household:

As for your present perturbations—I think a year or so will find you much less agitated, since all amorous attractions are essentially transient. And of course, if you’d get outside yourself, take an objective & panoramic survey, & give some really serious thought to the fortuitous meaninglessness of all emotion, you would be greatly helped in the cooling-off proces. That’s the only process worth cultivating unless the other victim gets ashamed of accepting luxury from a deceived partner & coöperates toward putting the whole matter on an open & straight-forward basis. Meanwhile one may only advise that you “coast” as inconspicuously & indecisively as you can—with eyes open as to possible exits & solutions. Let us hope that your wife will have time in Chicago to think on the value of the prize that is slipping away, & that a renewed affection on her part may assist in toning down the new & capricious hormone-storm. But time & common sense will doubtless bring their own adjustments.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 20 Jan 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 283-284

Which sounds a great deal as if Lillian left Alfred, and that there was some issue that caused the separation—the hints “amorous attractions” and “deceived partner” sound an awful lot like an extramarital affair, or perhaps the preliminary stages of one. It’s speculative all around—someone that Alfred met in Paris? A female student at Lawrence College (notable as one of the first co-educational colleges)? The “possible exits & solutions” may have been a gentle hint at divorce, as Lovecraft’s own separation had led to. Suffice to say, Lovecraft was not himself a font of good advice on marital difficulties, although he tried to say positive and encouraging things:

I am glad your domestick affairs maintain a certain quiescence, if not ideal adjustment, & trust that time may do its own salutary & imperceptible modelling toward a stabler & sounder equilibrium.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Jun 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 292

It is gratifying to learn—even tho’ it implies no great change in your basick philosophy—that you have extinguish’d the altars of Astarte in favour of those of Urania & Hymenaeus. In your easy recovery from the aberration you might well read a confirmation fo what I previously told you regarding the wholly capricious, cosmically un-grounded, & therefore essentially trivial nature of such seizures. They are simply temporary biological-psychological surface twists—& when one thoroughly realises the trivialmechanical character of such emotional phaenomena, he ought to be able to analyse them out of existence whenever they interfere with the well-harmoised & appropriate course of his life, or with the practice of that fairness, honest, & open, aboveboard conduct which distinguishes artistic living from sloppy, messy living.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 5 Oct 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 296

Astarte is the Hellenized version of the Near Eastern goddess Ishtar, associated with love; Aphrodite Urania was the aspect of spiritual love, and Hymenaeus the god of marriage. Which suggests that whatever affair was being pursued was broken off, and that Alfred Galpin was endeavoring to mend fences with Lillian. Part of this involved a trip to Chicago, implying they were still separated:

Glad you had a good Chicago trip, but sorry you picked up a cold. […] As for the philosophy & aestheticks of domestick organisation—I still don’t agree with your essentially cloudy & ill-defined system of standards. The common emotions connected with primary instincts, & not extensively linked with imaginative associations & a sense of pattern, are undeniably largely mechanical matters which, while powerful in the sense that a rap on the head or a siege of typhoid is mechanically powerful in its effect on the system, are certainly not important in the artistic experience of complex conscious living.  Assuredly, they are not important enough to justify their easy interference with the fulfilment of other emotions whose richness & coördination give them a really pivotal place in an harmonious life of widely-realised possibilities. I feel confident that the current fashionable endorsement of messy living will vastly diminish whenever a reacquired cultural stability gives our most active minds a renew’d chance for mature & leisurely reflection.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 25 Oct 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 300

Some sort of peace was apparently brokered between husband and wife:

Glad that the household matters are recrystalising favourably, & hope the dual Appleton-Chicago arrangement may ensure you an ideal summer.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 6 Jun 1934, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 308

Again, speculation rears its head: if Lillian was living and working in Chicago, she probably was either living with family or had a lease on an apartment, and Alfred was probably in much the same situation in Appleton, although probably staying at the family home; perhaps Alfred would live with or visit Lillian in Chicago between terms until her lease was up, as they sought a more permanent solution.

Too bad that discord developed in Mme. Hasting’s work, but trust that her retirement to domesticity will not be any grave financial blow.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Sep 1934, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 322

Where Lillian was when she lost her job (and what it was, and why she lost it) are entirely unknown. It was the Great Depression, and she was a married woman; sexism and economics are equally likely culprits. Lovecraft mentions her being disappointed in not getting a position in October 1934 (Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 323), so she hadn’t given up looking just yet, and a little later he wrote:

Always glad to hear of old-time children turning out well—which reminds me that Little Alfie’s pa’s estate is getting settled at last, so that Master Consult Hasting may get 2000 bucks a year froma trust fund. Hot stuff! He’s fixing up the old home (726 E. College Ave.—formerly numbered 536 College Ave) in good style, & his ma is turning out the boarders as far as she can—& his wife is giving up her job in Chi.

H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 29 Nov 1934, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 364

“Consul Hastings” was Alfred Galpin’s pseudonym in amateur journalism days. After this, presumably Lillian had moved to Appleton to be with her husband. The 1940 Census entry does not list any employment, and the 1950 lists only “Keeping house.” References to Lillian Galpin are few in Lovecraft’s remaining letters; his last mention of their marraige reads:

Descending to merely human matters—I trust that financial asperities will soon be smoothed out, & that domestic life in general will be clarified by a resigned realisation of the irreconcilability of romantic glamour with middle age.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 17 Jan 1936, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 325

We have to depend on Lovecraft’s description of Lillian Galpin because Alfred Galpin does not provide one. In his memoir about his friendship with Lovecraft,  “Memories of a Friendship” (1959), Alfred Galpin leaves out all mention of his wife or the time Lovecraft met and helped her those few days in New York in 1925. By 1959, of course, Lillian was dead (she passed away in 1954) and Alfred had remarried (to Isabella Panzini; when the marriage took place is unclear, but she entered the United States in 1957 as Mrs. Galpin). A letter from Galpin clarifies his reasons for cutting Lillian out of the narrative a little:

You will note that I remained as anonymous as feasible and in particular, since ISabella has brought me the only real happiness I have known, I don’t like any reference to “first wife” or such when they can be avoided.

In 1925, Lee got “fed up” with my high-brow and penny-pinching attitude toward Paris and announced her intention to go home; giving this the usual “the hell with you, go along then” treatment, I was surprised to find her show up one day with the return ticket, so off she went. That is why most of my 14-15 months in Paris in 1925-1926 were spent alone (not most as she ultimately came back to fetch me. . . .) and it was while I was alone there that I wrote such reams of correspondence to HPL and also to her—the file which I mention as having later destroyed, as I never had any fondness for lingering on what is dead in the past. Well, here is where HPL comes in—I wanted you, in strict confidence between us, to get the general picture.

When Lee actually left it was without any harshness between us, on the sound theory that I could profit best on our $$ by remaining alone. One of the things we were anxious for her to do on her return was to see HPL who had married just a few months earlier than me (March and June 1924) and who was then in Brooklyn. Still a “babe in the woods” as my music teacher called us both when we went abroad in June 1925, Lee stopped off in New York and then started looking for Howard on foot in Brooklyn after having lost the address!! Believe it or not, she actually found some one who gave her the address and spent a brief visit with them, but very brief for the reason to be indicated and which I have no reason to doubt, since the much less credible part of the story, just told, is confirmed by other sources.

Alfred Galpin to August Derleth, 25 Jun N.D. [1959?], MSS. John Hay LIbrary

Galpin then mentions the bedbugs, which no doubt stood out in any account Lillian must have given her husband of the trip.

Marriages are difficult, always have been; this was true for the Lovecrafts and it was true, apparently, for the Galpins. Sometimes they work out, sometimes they do not. It is unfortunate to us that Alfred Galpin destroyed all the letters from his wife…and Lovecraft…during that year in Paris. As it is, we have only a very limited view of Lillian Mary Roche Galpin…as Lovecraft saw and described her, through the lens of his own relationship with her husband.

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

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

“Cassius” (1931) by Henry S. Whitehead

Weird Racism
Historical racism can take some strange turns when expressed through fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and the result can be more disturbing or offensive to some readers than “normal” racism. As such, please be advised before reading further.

Whitehead—to whose other distinctions I find that of Reverend or ex-Reverend added—has just started a tale from an idea of mine which he is suggesting that I finish as a collaborated work—but I may pass it up because of inability to do justice to the West Indian locale he has seen fit to choose. I am the sworn enemy of armchair exoticism, & believe in writing about things one personally knows—except of course in the case of Dunsanian phantasy or cosmic infinity.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 31 Jan 1931, Essential Solitude 1.320

The Reverend Henry S. Whitehead was an Episcopal priest and pulp writer who contributed to magazines such as Weird Tales and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. Before retiring to Florida, Whitehead had spent summers down in the U. S. Virgin Islands, soaking up the local atmosphere, culture, and folklore, and set many of his tales in this milieu, often in stories involving his character Gerald Canevin. H. P. Lovecraft had fallen into correspondence with Whitehead, and the two formed a convivial bond.

Lovecraft kept a commonplace book with ideas and plot germs, some of which he used and many of which never materialized but were borrowed or developed by others. The plot seed that inspired Whitehead was apparently this one:

[133] Man has miniature shapeless SIamese twin—exhib. in circus—twin surgically detached—disappears—does hideous things with malign life of his own.

Collected Essays 5.227

The entry is dated 1925, and R. H. Barlow, who was Lovecraft’s literary executor, added the notation “HSW—Cassius” to this entry. Whitehead took Lovecraft’s basic idea and applied it to his West Indian milieu to craft another Canevin tale. While Whitehead urged collaboration, however, Lovecraft begged off:

Whether I do anything with that Whitehead tale depends on how eager he is about it—for I hate being churlish & uncivil. He says he has it all started, & that he has prepared some guiding notes on the chosen West-Indian background.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 17 Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.321-322

As for collaboration—though I’ve done it in scores of ghost-writing cases, I think I’ll dispose of the Whitehead case by keeping things in the air till he writes the whole thing himself.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27? Feb 1931, Essential Solitude 1.324

Which is ultimately what Whitehead did. The story that developed, “Cassius” is essentially pure Whitehead in terms of plot and development, and aside from being set in the West Indies and starring his series character Canevin, also continues certain themes that he had developed in earlier tales.

For example, the tale “The Lips” (Weird Tales Sep 1929), a Black woman on a slave ship to the West Indies curses one of her white captors so that black mouths grow from his flesh, whispering the word “L’kundu”—this was a riff off Edward Lucas White’s story “Lukundoo” (1925), where a white man in colonial Africa wrongs an indigenous woman and is cursed to Lukundoo, where miniature, chattering Black heads grow from his flesh. In another tale, “Passing of a God” (Weird Tales Jan 1931), a white man with a large growth in his abdomen goes to the West Indies and falls in with voodoo; the growth is surgically removed and revealed to have been a parasitic twin that the cultists believed to be an incarnate god.

As those brief synopses indicate, there is a strong racial component to these stories; while the Virgin Islands was much less racially segregated than the mainland United States, Whitehead’s perspective—and his audience—was very much of the white mainland majority, and the characterization of BIPOC characters in his West Indies stories, while rarely mean-spirited, tend to be expressions of particular stereotypes and prejudices. So it is in “Cassius,” where a light-skinned biracial man named Brutus Hellman.

Brutus, it appeared, had need of a minor operation, and, Negro-like, the two of them, talking the matter over between themselves, had decided to ask me, their present patron, to arrange it.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

The operation had been the removal of a growth from Brutus’ groin or side—a parasitic twin which would go on to hunt and haunt Brutus Hellman in revenge. Except that the miniature human being thus freed is darker-skinned than Brutus, and possesses a kind of ancestral memory, reproduced African hut and spear in miniature as it carries out its campaign of terror. Whitehead offers a pseudoscientific explanation:

The well-established ethnic rule,the biological certainty in cases of miscegenation between Caucasians or quasi-Caucasians and the Negro or negroid tpes is tha the offspring is never darker than the darker of the two parents. The ‘black-baby’ tradition, as a ‘throw-back’ being produced by mulatto or nearly Caucasian parents is a bugaboo, Canevin, sheer bosh! It doesn’t happen that way. It cannot happen. it is a biological impossibility, my dear man. […] since Brutus is very ‘clear-colored,’ as the Negroes would say, that one of his parents was black; the other very considerably lighter, perhaps even a pure Caucasian. […] The mother—she was, undoubtedly, the black parent—proud of her ‘clear child’, would favor it,nurse it first.

Henry S. Whitehead, “Cassius” in Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror Nov 1931

Even in 1931, this “scientific” explanation wouldn’t hold water, but the point was to try and give an explanation for why Cassius was both darker-skinned that Brutus, and why the miniature stereotype was running around stabbing lighter-skinned Black people with spears made from knives, building “African” style huts out of discarded pencils, and the like. Totally aside from the explicit and implicit racism (scientific and otherwise) in “Cassius,” the story ends rather anticlimactically, and even Lovecraft wasn’t very impressed with the result:

About “Cassius”—It is hard for me to give an unbiased judgment, since the development is so antithetical to that which I had in mind when offering the central idea. To me it seems that a vast number of atmospheric & other horror-possibilities have been left unrealised, & that the typically bland, urbane, & almost unctuous style (the stereotyped Kipling tradition) wrecks the sort of hideous tensity really needed. Yet on the other hand I can see where Whitehead has used a fertile cleverness in incident-devising that I could never have approached. The chief scientific objection is, of course, the part played by “hereditary memory”—a thing wholly repudiated by responsible biologists, though still favoured by weird writers. I’d call “Cassius” a typical anthology item—for “sophisticated” professionals love that unctuous urbanity which to me is so markedly unsatisfying.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 1.404-405

Whitehead and Lovecraft did eventually meet in Florida, and would collaborate on another Canevin tale, “The Trap.” Yet in a later letter, Lovecraft would reveal a little more about the origin of the tale:

I gave H S W the idea for “Cassius”—at first he wanted me to collaborate, but our styles & approaches were so different that I couldn’t. It all came from a freak I saw in a dime museum—an Italian with a rudimentary twin growing out of his abdomen. Some time I’ll tell you how I had meant to develop the theme—I may do it yet.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 23 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 207-208

In a sense, Lovecraft had already played with the twin theme in at least two tales: “The Dunwich Horror” (Weird Tales Apr 1929) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (written early 1927, unpublished during Lovecraft’s lifetime). Ward with its near-identical ancestor-descendent pair recalls one of Lovecraft’s earliest recorded stories, now lost:

One long-destroyed tale was of twin brothers—one murders the other, but conceals the body, & tries to live the life of both—appearing in one place as himself, & elsewhere as his victim. (Resemblance had been remarkable.) He meets sudden death (lightning) when posing as the dead man—is identified by a scar, & the secret finally revealed by his diary. This, I think, antedates my 11th year.

H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 2 Feb 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 51

Lovecraft would refer to this idea in commenting on a similar story, “The Man Who Was Two Men” by A. W. Bernal in Weird Tales Apr 1935 (Letters to Robert Bloch and Others 233). Yet neither of these stories really involves a parasitic twin, and the idea that Lovecraft got the idea from a real performer he saw at a human oddity exhibition is intriguing. We know from Lovecraft’s letters, for example, that in 1925 (from when the entry in the Common Place book is dated), Lovecraft and his wife visited such an attraction in Coney Island.

We then called in for a fitting of the suit, & took an open car for an evening ride to Coney Island. We had not intended to get off at all; but finding the resort phenomenally uncrowded, we did—incidentally patronising some of the assorted freak shows. In one of them there still survives P. T. Barnum’s original “Zip, the What-is-It”—now probably over 90 years of age. In Barnum’s day “Zip” (whose profile I here reproduce) was exhibited as a semi-ape, & dressed in a furry skin supposed to be his natural hide. Now he appears in immaculate evening dress, grins amiably, & picks out simple tunes on the violin & xylophone. The age is too sophisticated for Barnum’s charlatanry, & “Zip” chiefly interests people as having been part of the great showman’s entourage. This creature is really a semi-idiotic Andaman Islander—one of a dwarf Malay stock inhabiting the East Indies. He was picked up as a boy by a seaman long before the Civil War, & has since vegetated in one freak show after another. Living feebly & lightly, he does not show his years; & will probably excite the smiles of still another generation.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.308
Brown University Library

Lovecraft is credulously repeating the popular billing; “Zip the Pinhead” was William Henry Johnson, born to a Black family in New Jersey, and was in his late 60s when Lovecraft saw him, though he would die the following year.

It is not clear if the performer who inspired Lovecraft’s commonplace book entry was seen during this excursion or another, but Lovecraft went into great detail about the idea and its potential development; for ease of reading, this long section of a letter has been broken up into several sections:

About the twin—I was divided between two plans of development. One would have had the monster escape as Whitehead had it—but would have had it much more terrible & much less human. I would have had it grow in size, & frighten people much more terribly than “Cassius” did. Indeed, I would have tried to convey the implication that some Outside force or daemon had taken possession of the brainless, twisted body—impelling it to strange acts of apparently deliberate but plainly non-human motivation. The climax would have consisted of some dramatic & unmistakable revelation of this Outside tenancy—probably connected with the spectacular destruction of the thing in one way or another. My story would have had none of the lightness, sauvity, & humour of Whitehead’s, but would have been grim & terrible all through. So much for one plot.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 215

This is the development that most closely resembles the unnamed twin in “The Dunwich Horror”—and perhaps too closely resembles the parasitic twin in Whitehead’s “Passing of a God.” Assuming that Whitehead wrote that story before he received Lovecraft’s plot germ—and perhaps it is what prompted Lovecraft’s sharing of his own vaguely similar idea—he might have felt inclined to develop the parasitic twin idea in a different way in “Cassius” so as to avoid repeating himself. The other plot idea was far less cosmic and, like Whitehead’s, more science fiction:

The other plot I had in mind was much more human—not supernatural at all, in fact. The idea was to have the connexion of the man & his miniature twin much more complex & obscure than any doctor had suspected. The operation of separation is performed—but lo! An unforseen horror & tragedy results. For it seems that the brain of the twin-burdened man lay in the miniature twin alone . . . . so that the operation has produced a hideous monster only a foot tall, with the keen brain of a man, & a handsome manlike shell with the undeveloped brain of a total idiot. From this situation I planned to develop an appropriate plot, although—from the magnitude of the task—I had not progressed very far. I had an idea of having the midget monster assume the guardianship of his handsome, brainless twin & endeavour to hypnotise it in such a way that it could do his talking for him & act as his substitute in the outside world. I meant to have him succeed, so that after about a year there appears in society a handsome, brilliant man who always carries a satchel, & who displays vast alarm when there is any danger of his being separated from it. This, of course, is the brainless twin—who now serves as the mouthpiece & exterior facade of the intelligent monster, who rules him by hypnotism from the shelter of the satchel. From then on I had decided nothing. One idea was to have an accident destroy the satchel, causing the idiot to collapse helplessly & perhaps die. Another was to have the man gain fame—but finally to have the idiot body die in such a way that the death can hardly be concealed. The intelligent twin still lives—but how can he now keep his secret? He may be able to hide bodily, but how can he continue the work which brought him fame (say as a writer or painter or scholar) when the famous man is supposed to be dead? I had not progressed to the point of solving that problem—or even deciding whether I’d have such a problem—when Whitehead began urging the collaboration & I finally gave him the plot to develop in his own way. Hence “Cassius”.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

This “double life” plot is obviously a continuation of Lovecraft’s earliest twin theme story idea; yet the idea of a miniature parasitic twin with its own independent intelligence is clearly what inspired Whitehead’s “Cassius.” Yet the whole process of thinking over the plot germ led Lovecraft in a third direction:

Now—after years—another alternative occurs to me. I might have the death of the handsome idiot-body concealed, & have the intelligent monster embalm it & display it seated in a chair—ostensibly still alive but paralysed. he would have it appear to speak—in a feeble, alien voice supposedly due to the paralysis—through the clever practice of ventriloquism. Then some awful climax of revelation could occur—any one of a dozen hideous sorts. The embalming could be imperfect, so that the supposedly living man would display signs of decomposition. Or notice could be attracted by its failure to age through the passing years. In writing such a story, I’d probably begin near the end—that is, have the bulk of the action concern the final phase, when the supposed paralytic begins to arouse suspicion. The antecedent history—the operation &c—would be subtly worked in as backflashes. I would make the revelation very gradual & suspense-filled—& at the last might leave the reader in some doubt of what the truth really was. Whether I shall ever do this or not remains to be seen. It certainly wouldn’t be duplicating “Cassius”—for the whole spirit & emphasis of my conception is antipodally alien to Whitehead’s. Whitehead urged me to go ahead & try—but I thought some time had better elapse in any case.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216

While Lovecraft would never develop this explicit idea, the image of the ventriloquist act would be used in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931). The narrative development of beginning at the end and then working back to how this came to pass is a familiar part of Lovecraft’s style. Yet as for where Lovecraft got the idea in the first place:

I believe I mentioned that my idea came from seeing an actual case of the undeveloped-twin anomaly in a freak shew (Hubert’s Museum in W. 42nd St.) in New York. The man in question–an intelligent Italian who for some reason billed himself under the French name of “Jean Libera”—had a little anthropoid excrescence growing out of his abdomen which looked hellishly gruesome when uncovered. Cothed, he looked merely like a somewhat “pot-bellied” individual. So far as I know, he is still living & on exhibition. He looked so essentially refined & high0gade that I wondered at this willingness to be exploited as a freak, & speculated as to what he would do if a stroke of luck removed him from the need of such an ignominious occupation. The first thing he would do, I argued, would be to have the excrescence cut off—& then & there the idea of the story came. This was in 1924 or 1925. Now the odd & amusing thing is this. Years afterward—after I had given the idea to Whitehead & was awaiting the appearance of “Cassius”—I chanced to mention the matter to my old friend Arthur Leeds of New York, who has had extensive dealings with freaks & other amusement enterprises. Fancy my surprise when he told me that he knows Libera well—that the man’s real name is Giovanni Libera, that he is an Italian of great intelligence, that he is interested in everything weird, & that (believe this or not—it’s actual truth!) he is especially fond of my work in W.T.!!!! Talk about coincidence! Leeds was going to tell him about “Cassius”, but I told him not to, since he might feel some delicacy (despite his occupation) about being used in that way. At the time (1930) Leeds was going to introduce me to Liebra; but something prevented, so the meeting never came off. It certainly would have seemed odd to meet one of my plot-germs in the flesh . . . . the flesh of two bodies, or a body & a half, at that!

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 12 Sep 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, &c. 216-217

Giovanni Libbera was an Italian performer who toured the United States, sometimes billed as Jean or Jean and Jacques Libbera. Lovecraft’s 1924 and 1925 letters do no mention Hubert’s Dime Museum or Libbera by name, and trying to figure out exactly where Libbera was under contract during that period is difficult, but there are newspaper advertisements that show Libbera was employed at Hubert’s during some periods. J.-M. Rajala in “Locked Dimensions Out of Reach: The Lost Stories of H. P. Lovecraft” (Lovecraft Annual #5, 2011) suggests it may have been during a 15 July walk to Times Square recorded in Lovecraft’s 1925 diary.

Which is the long and rather weird root to how a chance encounter with a human oddity led to a story in Weird Tales…and, perhaps, sheds some light on Lovecraft’s plotting and development of story ideas, and how that differed from his colleagues. It is notable, for instance, that Lovecraft’s original plot-germ and all of its developments is totally agnostic in terms of race. The plot has nothing to do with the twins being white, Black, or anything else, while Whitehead in transferring the plot to the West Indies makes it entirely about race, or at least about certain preconceptions about race. This makes fair sense when it is considered that Whitehead’s stories frequently dealt with BIPOC characters in a setting where they predominated, while Lovecraft stuck mostly with familiar New England settings with relatively fewer BIPOC folk.

No—I shan’t let your gargoyle tale cut mine off . . . . any more than I shall let Whitehead’s “Cassius” suppress my future tale of the amputated Siamese twin.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Aug 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 320

The legacy of “Cassius” is a bit harder to track. While no one has, to the best of my knowledge, written a direct sequel, however there are two stories by members of Lovecraft’s circle of correspondents that might continue some of the themes and ideas.

“The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937) by Robert Bloch is about a man with a parasitic twin growing from the left shoulder that is both intelligent and has a distinct interest in Mythos lore; as in Lovecraft’s second plot development, the parasite manages to gain control of its brothers body for a time.

“It Will Grow On You” (Esquire Apr 1942) by Donald Wandrei is a kind of spiritual sequel that combines elements of “Cassius,” “The Lips,” and “Lukundoo.” A white man among the islands gets a native woman pregnant, and when he threatens to leave she curses him. A small female form then grows from his thigh. A surgeon attempts to remove the growth, but the curse transfers to the surgeon.

In all of these stories that have been discussed, there is a fascination with both bodily deformity—many of the stories are effectively early examples of what today would be termed body horror—and with the idea of a kind of twisted morality play. Giovanni Libbera did nothing wrong, committed no crime or sin, he was simply born the way he was. Individuals in stories like “Lukundoo,” “The Lips,” and “It Will Grow On You” all receive their horrific transformations from some terrible crime, and like a rapist who catches an STD, have to live with the consequences. In “Passing of a God,” “Cassius,” and “The Mannikin” it is the parasite that is evil…something to be cut from the body if possible, endured if not.

None of the characters seek to capitalize on their odd status as Libbera did; these are not stories about the practical difficulties of the life of a performer making the best of an unusual physical condition, like David Lynch’s The Elephant Man (1980). There is a very distinct prudishness and shame regarding their physical bodies which is reflected in Lovecraft’s emphasis on Libbera’s “ignominious occupation.” Yet that was a mentality that went far beyond just Lovecraft himself, and found expression in many authors during the period. Sideshows and dime museums may have come and gone, yet the repulsion at that which is different—and the fascination with the same—remains.

Henry S. Whitehead’s “Cassius” may be read for free online in the Nov 1931 issue of Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror.

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

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

“The Last Horror” (1927) by Eli Colter

Weird Racism
Historical racism can take some strange turns when expressed through fantasy, horror, and science fiction, and the result can be more disturbing or offensive to some readers than “normal” racism. As such, please be advised before reading further.

But by the time I was twenty-one I realized how insurmountable a barrier lay between me and the fulfilment of my dreams. I was a Negro. No matter what respect I might command from white men because of my intelligence and abilities, no matter to what heights I might rise, the wall of race reared between. It drove me fantic. I wanted to meet other great men on a common level, to be one of them. And I could not.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

Racial discrimination is based on the fallacy that race is a definable, fixed constant; a physical and cultural reality that is consistent and unalterable. The reality of this discrimination—the eponymous color line in the United States—has been a source of tension within the population since the first African slaves were brought to the nascent Colonies in 1619. Sometimes the definition and discrimination based on race was encoded in law, such as during the Jim Crow era when Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote for Weird Tales, and more often—even today—the discrimination was largely informal, social, a reflection of white supremacy and the paranoia and violence used to enforce that self-image.

Yet race is not so clear-cut or fixed. This is part of what gave rise to the white horror of passing, a light-skinned person of color being able to successfully pass themselves off as “white,” as happened in Mark Twain’s Puddn’head Wilson (1894) and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft. Supernatural and science fiction, however, allows much more fantastic possibilities. What if you could drink some magic potion, or apply some chemical agent to the skin, and change its color? On the surface, this seems silly; albinism exists regardless of ethnicity, and there is much more to ethnic identities than just skin, eye, and hair color. However, when so much cultural tension is wrapped up in issues of skin color, the idea of racebending becomes a thought experiment—a narrative what-if explored in stories like Harry Roselenko’s Black Is A Man (1960) or Lord Dunsany’s “Across the Colour Bar” (2002), and many other works, sometimes for social commentary, or comedy, or horror.

“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter is an example of such a racebending weird tale—a rare story that directly addresses the issues of racial discrimination, and yet the plot is irreparably snarled.

In form, the story is essentially science fiction: a Black millionaire with white hands (attributed to maternal impression, but possibly inspired by vitiligo) receives a skin graft from a white friend and conceives the idea of grafting white skin onto his entire body and passing himself as a white man. This is accomplished with the aid of a rogue surgeon and a carefully planned campaign of kidnapping, bribery, and murder to obtain the white skin. Yet the focus of the story is less on the details of the surgery, the possibilities of tissue rejection, or the possibility of failure—the antagonist, Ballymair, has planned too well. What the narrative focuses on are the racial dynamics of the story.

When Ballymair goes to the Congo to participate in a hunt, the African-American meets indigenous Africans, and expresses his prejudices:

I compared myself to those negroids over there. Cannibals! Living in crude rectangular houses, tattooed in weird designs with scars, carrying bows with cane strings and packing wooden shields, wearing bark-cloth—or nothing—believing in their fetishism and witchcraft, chipping their teeth and letting the women do all the work. Was I like them? Was I of that race? Only in color! Outside I was black, but inside I was as purely Caucasian as either the captain or Dr. Straub.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

Except…are these really his prejudices? Because the words put into the character’s mouth are white stereotypes, the kind of thing expressed in a hundred pulp stories or Black Magic (1929) by Paul Morand. These are the words put in the mouth of an African-American character when the author wants to express self-hatred, to define that spark of madness that would lead to this murderous plot. These are a white person’s prejudices, put in the mouth of a non-white character, and for the specific purpose so that at the climax of the story a white character can give the ultimate rebuttal when the operation is complete and Ballymair shows off his white skin.

White? Where? You may change your skin, Ballymair, but you can’t change your heart. You’re quite right. The skin does not matter. One of the best friends I have is a Negro—a man with a clear brain and a fine soul, satisfied to hold his place in the world.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

While this might not be the earliest example of a white person dragging out a token Black friend as an effort to appear inclusive. Yet that Black man is only the white man’s friend so long as he is “satisfied to hold his place in the world.” The whole of the reason-you-suck speech is such a bizarre mishmash of backhanded compliments towards Black people and hellacious stereotypes about Black people that the ideas run into each other.

While the overall moral of the story would appear to be self-acceptance, it is couched in such a web of white supremacist language and ideas that it’s difficult to read this as well-meaning. This is a story written by a white person who, regardless of what moral they were trying to express, fundamentally doesn’t understand and cannot portray the Black experience in the 1920s, and it shows at nearly every turn. All we are left with at the end is a morally indignant white person essentially proving their ideas of white superiority by shaming Ballymair to suicide by explaining race and racism to him.

You may be white from the second skin out, but your blood runs true to form. Whatever pigment lies in the cells of that first skin to make the Negro black still flows in your veins! Go ahead and marry! Find out how white you are. Look—there you are! A white man, having taken his place in the world, wealthy; perhaps respected for his brain and his polish, in social intercourse with his seeming kind—with black children around his knees.

Eli Colter, “The Last Horror” in Weird Tales Jan 1927

It’s not a stupid argument to point out that the skin graft is a change literally only skin deep, but the idea that this is a showstopper for someone who has already conducted multiple murders to pull off the fraud is making a hell of an assumption. The problem isn’t the genetics so much as the suppositions that go behind these statements. For example, the assumption is that Ballymair will marry a white woman and that biracial children would give him away or prove a social handicap. A moment’s thought might bring up adoption, interracial marriage, or any other option if Ballymair desires children.

Yet the superficial nature of the argument is a reflection of the literally superficial plot. “The Last Horror” is not some deep introspective philosophical work on the nature of racism and racial identity; it’s an almost hokey science fiction story with a laughable surmise that’s played for horror to an audience of white readers. The argument that “passing” doesn’t make Ballymair white is a reaffirmation of scientific racialism and white supremacist talking points, even when an effort is made to couch it in such a way as to shame Ballymair for not embracing his own Black identity. If a Black character had made this argument, it would have seemed an appeal to Black pride; from a white character, it is literally nothing more than “know your place.”

Given the absolute mess of the race dynamics in this story, it is perhaps not surprising that “The Last Horror” hasn’t had much of a cultural impact or seen much reprinting. The story was well-received at Weird Tales, and reprinted in the British Not At Night anthology You’ll Need A Night Light (1927) edited by Christine Campbell Thomson and in the Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales, but “The Last Horror” has been passed over for anthologies and collections ever since, except for facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. No doubt it is too much an artifact of the Jim Crow era, and of sentiments whose time is long past.

Yet there is a final aspect of “The Last Horror” which is rarely acknowledged: the synchronicity with H. P. Lovecraft. In that same issue of Weird Tales where “The Last Horror” was first published, Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” also first saw print. When Thomson selected “The Last Horror” for You’ll Need A Night Light, she picked “The Horror at Red Hook” too. And while Lovecraft rarely discusses many of the early stories of Weird Tales, he did make a point to mention this one:

The only decent thing in the issue, aside from such shorter features as your tale, is “The Last Horror”—which is truly clever, though more quasi-scientific than weird. I have long planned something of that sort myself, though of psychic rather than physical cast—an attempt on the part of an educated negro to project his personality & secure the tenancy of a white man’s body through the arts of voodoo.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 16 Dec 1926, Essential Solitude 1.56

Lovecraft wasn’t kidding. His Commonplace Book where he recorded story ideas and images for later use includes two entries along these lines from 1923:

108: “Educated mulatto seeks to displace personality of white man & occupy his body”

109: “Ancient negro voodoo wizard in cabin in swamp—possesses white man.”

Collected Essays 5.225

Like “A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof, Lovecraft was sort of beaten to the punch. Perhaps that is why, ultimately, Lovecraft would not write either of these stories, though the whole idea of personality displacement or possession would appear in stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Nor does voodoo make much of an appearance in Lovecraft’s fiction (see “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch for details). Later generations who mined Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book for ideas have also generally left those ideas inviolate. We can only imagine how Lovecraft might have conceived and written a story based on this kind of premise—whether he could bend his view to get inside the mind of a Black character, or whether like Colter it would have been simply a confirmation of white supremacism.

Which is understandable. Lovecraft and Colter both expressed an interest in the same idea at roughly the same time because racial segregation and white supremacy were current and ongoing issues in the United States, and passing had real legal, social, and economic benefits when compared to the ongoing discrimination that nearly all people of color faced. Discrimination which Lovecraft and Colter were both aware of, but did not face themselves.

As for Eli Colter’s “Golden Whistle”—not having my W T file with me, I couldn’t say what issue it appeared in. Nor do I know anything about Colter himself. I never liked his tales overly well, since to me they seemed to contain just a touch of the mawkish.

H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 29 Apr 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 81

Eli Colter was one of the pseudonyms of May Eliza Frost (see her entry on Tellers of Weird Tales blog), a white woman from Oregon, which had long-lasting Black exclusion laws. She and Lovecraft were of an age, and it is not surprising that they addressed some of the same themes, in their own style and from their different perspective. Yet they were both white people, and benefitted from their place in the racial hierarchy of the United States, despite their personal hardships…and they were writing to an audience that was presumably also white, who would be expected to share those same experiences and possibly the same prejudices, spoken and unspoken, that inform works like “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Last Horror.”

Yet while Lovecraft’s “The Horror at Red Hook” has been reprinted dozens of times, studied and dissected, critiqued, pastiched, parodied, and revisited (see “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle), “The Last Horror” has largely sunk into obscurity—and the obscurity of this story, and other contemporary stories like it, is part of the reason why Lovecraft’s own prejudices tend to loom larger in his reputation. When folks claim that Lovecraft’s racism was particularly virulent or notorious even when compared to his peers, it is worth remembering “The Last Horror” and that Lovecraft’s prejudices were not unique. This should not be taken as absolving or downplaying the prejudices expressed in either Colter or Lovecraft’s fiction, but only as an understanding that these works were not created in a vacuum, but express something of the historical context of their times and experiences.

“The Last Horror” by Eli Colter can be read online in the Jan 1927 issue or Feb 1939 issue of Weird Tales.

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

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