The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) by Dorothy Scarborough & The Tale of Terror (1921) by Edith Birkhead

W. Paul Cook wants an article from me on the element of terror & weirdness in literature, but I shall take my time about preparing it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 19 Nov 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.492

In November 1925, while living alone at 169 Clinton Street in Brooklyn, New York, H. P. Lovecraft was asked to write for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal, The Recluse. Up to this point, Lovecraft had been a fan of weird fiction and read many of the major works in the field, and a reader and contributor to Weird Tales for the last two years, but had never undertaken a systemic course of reading on weird fiction. Now without a wife or regular employment, he had an excuse to do so—as well as the resources of the New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library to draw on.

A significant chunk of this reading, and the initial chapters of what would become “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was completed by May 1926; in April of that year, he moved back to Providence, Rhode Island. The final sketching and typing of the long essay was delayed by further discoveries at the Providence Public Library, and Lovecraft continued to make last-minute alterations up until 1927; the essay was finally published in The Recluse in August 1927.

I want to get down to the publick library & read that Timothy Dexter book, (of which Tryout has just sent me another fine review) as well as Gemmill’s new work on the Salem witch trials, & a volume of two or three years ago on the tale of terror.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 19 Nov 1925, LFF 1.493

[…] went out to the Bklyn. Library, got Birkhead’s history of “The Tale of Terror”, came home & read it through, & retired 7 a.m.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clarke, 25 Nov 1925, LFF 1.495

Chapters III & IV of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” are devoted to Gothic literature, and while Lovecraft did peruse the Gothics, one of his major acknowledged sources for these early chapters was The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) by Edith Birkhead, an assistant lecturer in English literature at the University of Bristol. Birkhead’s study was pioneering in many ways, but as David Punter points out in The Literature of Terror, not only was it a very readable and accessible volume, but it was free of the defensive attitude toward genre fiction that characterized many other works on supernatural and Gothic fiction.

Even in the 1920s, there was something a little trashy and disreputable about such literary fare; penny dreadfuls and purple prose. Folks today still make fun of a novel starting “It was a dark and stormy night…” but that was the actual opening to Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s neo-Gothic novel Paul Clifford (1830), which Birkhead mentions in passing. Even Lovecraft was not above taking a shot at such works, referring in his essay to:

[…] the dreary plethora of trash like Marquis von Grosse’s Horrid Mysteries (1796), Mrs. Roche’s Children of the Abbey (1796), Miss Dacre’s Zofloya; or, The Moor (1806), and the poet Shelley’s schoolboy effusions Zastrozzi (1810) and St. Irvyne (1811) (both imitations of Zofloya) […]

While Lovecraft did read several Gothic novels in the course of his research, the ones listed above are not books which Lovecraft tracked down and read for himself: he was distilling Birkhead’s more detailed history of Gothic literature for his own purposes. No doubt Lovecraft also appreciated that Birkhead did not stint on attention to American Gothic authors such as Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe in her chapter on “American Tales of Terror,” and her description of Poe in particular has many echoes with Lovecraft’s own stylistic efforts:

But Poe’s psychology went deeper than that of the writers of romance. His art was much subtler, finer, and more self-conscious than theirs. He was a penetrating critic of his own work, and was deeply interested in craftsmanship. No doubt he analysed the structure of his tales as closely as that of his poem, The Raven, and studied constantly their precise effect on the mind of the reader. In his best tales we feel that he knows from the first sentence exactly what the end is to be. In choosing his subject, he intentionally shuns the normal and turns to the odd, the exceptional and the bizarre. He watches for the airy, gossamer filaments of sensation that float unrealised through most men’s minds and transfers them to his stories. He imagines obscure feelings as intensely as he imagines actual scenes. It seems as if he had brooded so long over his story and become so completely absorbed into its atmosphere that the fine shades of emotion are as real to him as the background he has conceived as a setting. He does not aim at depicting character. The people in his tales are little more than algebraical symbols. he prefers to follow the twists and turns of a brain working under some abnormal influence. His not interested in healthy human minds or hearts. […] His pictures are sometimes so vivid that they make the senses ache. Like Maturin, he even resorts to italics to enforce his effect. He crashes down heavily on a chord which would resound at a touch. […] While he was writing, Poe did not for a moment let his imagination run riot. the outline of the story was so distinctly conceived, its atmosphere so familiar to him, that he had leisure to choose his words accurately, and to dispose his sentences harmoniously, with the final effect ever steadily in view. the impression that he swiftly flashes across our minds is deep and enduring.
—Edith Birkhead, The Tale of Terror 219-220

Lovecraft’s opinion on Birkhead’s book was mixed. While he did not hesitate to recommend it to his friends and correspondents, notably August Derleth (who would write his thesis on “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890) and Donald Wandrei (who was taking an honors course in Gothic fiction at university), to Wandrei he admitted:

I read the Birkhead book on “The Tale of Terror”, but found it exceedingly ill-proportioned & imaginatively unappreciative.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Dec 1926, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 22

No doubt, this was due to the relative narrowness of the scope of The Tale of Terror, and because Lovecraft’s own tastes—reflected in “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—were focused on the uncanny and supernatural, more than the merely terrible or gruesome phases of literature, and because Birkhead’s remit ran out before she tackled contemporary weird fiction or writers such as Arthur Machen or M. R. James. In other places, Lovecraft was more effusive in his praise:

Do you know Railo’s “The Gothic Castle” & Birkhead’s “The Tale of Terror”? Both are excellent exposition of the earlier phases of horror-fiction in English—the Walpole-Radcliffe-Lewis-Maturin type. I could lend you the Birkhead book.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 22 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 92

Eino Railo was a Finnish scholar whose treatise The Haunted Castle: A Study of the Elements of English Romanticism was published in English in 1927. Lovecraft would count his work along with Birkhead as one of the default textbooks on Gothic fiction, although he read it too late to incorporate into the first publication of his own article:

Speaking of Gothic source material—Cook has just lent me a brand new book by one Eino Railo (never heard of him before) which for thoroughness throws Birkhead altogether into the shade—although its scope is even narrower.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 22 Oct 1927, LWP 171

Lovecraft did not cease collecting material after “Supernatural Horror in Literature” was published, but continued to collect notes with an eye toward a revised version of the text, incorporating more material he subsequently found on important authors like William Hope Hodgson. In this, Wandrei was very useful in pointing Lovecraft toward some other sources:

By the way, in looking through the bookstacks of the University library the other [day], I came across “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough; it does not seem to be especially good as a monograph but it mentions a great many books and tales which I do not know. I have also discovered at the U. a professor whose speciality is the eighteenth century and who is fond of Gothic literature. He says a French book on the subject has just been issued, under the title, I think, “Le Roman de Terreur”. I don’t remember the author’s name, but I’ll find it out. The book apparently has not come into the library as yet; hence I can’t say how good it is.
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 28 Feb 1927, LWP 59-60

Dorothy Scarborough, PhD., was an English instructor at Columbia University, and her work The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917) is an extensive survey of the entire field of supernatural works in English, though even with this vast scope and a bibliography of some three thousand titles, she admits in her preface that it isn’t possible to mention every title, the field is simply too vast. Still, her volume represents one of, if not the, first major assay of the field of supernatural fiction in English. Her general expertise on ghost stories was acknowledged in several collections, notably The Best Psychic Stories (1920), Humorous Ghost Stories (1921), and Famous Modern Ghost Stories (1921)

The other work Wandrei mentions is Le roman “terrifiant”: ou, Roman noir de Walpole à Anne Radeliffe et son influence sur la littérature française jusqu’en 1840 (The ‘Terror’ Story, or the Black Novel from from Walpole to Anne Radeliffe and its influence on French literature until 1840,” 1923) by Alice M. Killen, a revision of her 1920 thesis. This is a strictly French-language work on the Gothic novel in much the same vein as Railo and Birkhead, although again with a narrower focus. Lovecraft didn’t read French and never saw Killen’s book, though he continued to cite her as an expert in the field—but he did read Scarborough.

Thanks tremendously for the Scarborough book, which I read with keen interest & am going to return the first moment I can get to a post office. It was certainly kind of you to send it. The material is really of great value, & I am immensely glad I had a chance to go through it. As you say, the weakest parts are those dealing with later work. The author does not mention M. R. James, & her prim distaste for Machen’s macabre suggestions is rather amusing. Likewise, her efforts to be continually jocose & flippant become a little strained as one reads on. There is no conflict with my article, because the scope & method of the work are entirely different. This book covers not only horror but all forms of the supernatural, & includes the comic & the lightly whimsical as well as the grotesque & the terrible. Also, its plan of development & system of emphasis is entirely different. What I am trying to do is give a  list of especially notable works containing supernatural horror; listing them by periods & authors & allotting them notice on the basis of their strength & merit in the given field. Dr. Scarborough, on the other hand, is trying to trace certain types of subject-matter through literature in a less critical way—being interested in the mere mention of a certain superstition by an author, & listing items simply because they deal with such-&-such—not because they have a special power to influence the emotions. This system involves a radically different form of outline, as you see. Instead of going ahead chronologically & treating the most powerful books of each period, Scarborough follows first one stream of subdivided subject-matter & then another—i.e., ghosts, devil, vampire, werewolf, wandering Jew, metempsychosis, alchemy, folklore, science, &c. &c. In the course of this scheme she lists many things so pallid & inane that one can hardly think of their deserving a place except from the standpoint of academic scholarship. And yet, for all that it’s a valuable book. It certainly brings out many essential facts & tendencies amazingly well, & will bear comparison with anything else on this theme ever written. The separate & perhaps encyclopaedic bibliography edited by Dr. S. must be another item of great importance. Let me know any time you want to see the Birkhead book. […] I obtained several hints from Scarborough, & also copied two tributes to the weird as a genre from the introduction—Lafcadio Hearn’s & the author’s own. Whether I’ll ever get around to preparing a second & amended edition of my article, I’m sure I don’t know.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 31 Mar 1932, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 95

As it happened, Lovecraft did get that chance. Charles D. Hornig, the editor of The Fantasy Fan fanzine, serialized the revised essay in parts from 1933-1935…at which point the series ended, having only published up to the revised chapter VIII. The full revised text was not published until two years after Lovecraft’s death, in The Outsider and Others (1939, Arkham House).

The influence that Scarborough had on Lovecraft’s revised version of “Supernatural Horror in Literature” is hard to measure. A comparison of the original 1927 text and the 1939 text show some substantial revisions, some of which might be due to additional authors and insights provided by Scarborough, but others which concern contemporary authors that Scarborough’s book doesn’t touch upon. Yet for the rest of his life, Lovecraft generally acknowledged the authority of Birkhead and Scarborough in passages like:

Weird elements have permeated literature since prehistoric times—flourishing in Elizabethan drama & forming a distinct school since the middle of the eighteenth century. (cf. “The Tale of Terror” by Edith Birkhead; “The Haunted Castle”, by Eino Railo; “The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction”, by Dorothy Scarborough—all presumably obtainable at the public library […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to C. L. Moore, 12 Apr 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore 30

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Lovecraft’s acknowledgement of the expertise of these two women is how unremarkable it is. Lovecraft at no point makes any issue of their gender, and while he does not agree with them in all particulars, he also does not associate the source of that disagreement with their being women. He acknowledged their expertise and scholastic efforts, at least in their letters. While “Supernatural Horror in Literature” only credits Birkhead and not Scarborough, that is no doubt because he leaned much more heavily on Birkhead’s scholarship in the early chapters on the Gothics.

Since his death, Lovecraft’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” has probably become his most influential essay, a survey and definition of the field of weird fiction which, while not as exhaustive as that of Birkhead, Railo, Killen, and Scarborough, is more focused on what we think of as the “weird tale” today. Like Roger Bacon, if Lovecraft saw a little further than other weird talers during his lifetime, it was because he stood on the shoulders of giants like Birkhead and Scarborough, and all those who cite his essay are in turn being influenced by these great women scholars of the weird.

Edith Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance may be read for free online here.

Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction may be read for free online here.


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

The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray

“He had not read in vain such treatises as Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe; and knew that up to recent years there had certainly survived among peasants and furtive folk a frightful and clandestine system of assemblies and orgies descended from dark religions antedating the Aryan world, and appearing in popular legends as Black Masses and Witches’ Sabbaths.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

“The other manuscript papers were all brief notes, some of them accounts of the queer dreams of different persons, some of them citations from theosophical books and magazines (notably W. Scott-Elliot’s Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria), and the rest comments on long-surviving secret societies and hidden cults, with references to passages in such mythological and anthropological source-books as Frazer’s Golden Bough and Miss Murray’s Witch-Cult in Western Europe.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

I took a good deal of it at college, and am familiar with most of the standard authorities such as Tylor, Lubbock, Frazer, Quatrefages, Murray, Osborn, Keith, Boule, G. Elliot Smith, and so on.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

Margaret Alice Murray was 58 and already a successful Egyptologist when she published The Witch-Cult in Western Europe: A Study in Anthropology in 1921. On the strength of that book, she wrote the article on Witchcraft for the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1929, which remained in print in various editions until 1969. The influence of that book—and its sequel, The God of the Witches (1931)—has profoundly impacted how entire generations have come to see witchcraft. And it played a critical part in the development of the Lovecraft Mythos.

The book has an odd place in the Mythos. Certainly, Lovecraft was inspired by it, and Murray’s thesis as interpreted through Lovecraft’s own lens strongly influenced “The Festival,” “The Dreams in the Witch House,” and other stories. He included it among other real works in “The Horror at Red Hook” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” so it is technically a kind of Mythos tome, although not by any stretch a grimoire akin to the Necronomicon. Subsequent authors have borrowed on its dual status as both a real book and a “Mythos” work as well.

So while never writing a Mythos story or probably reading anything that Lovecraft wrote, Margaret Murray and her Witch-Cult in Western Europe are in the rare position of being adopted into the Mythos. She shares this status with a few others: Robert W. Chambers and The King in Yellow, Helena Blavatsky and The Book of Dzyan. Yet Murray’s impact on Lovecraft was profoundly greater than the mythology of Hastur or Theosophy. It began in 1924, at the New York Public Library:

The most revealing and stupefying book among those I have been reading is “The Witch Cult in Western Europe”, by Margaret Alice Murray, which was published in 1921 and reviewed with great attention by Burton Rascoe in the Tribune. In this book the problem of witchcraft superstition is attacked from an entirely new angle—wherein the explanation of delusion and hysteria is discarded in favour of an hypothesis almost exactly like the one used by Arthur Machen in fiction [marginal note: The Three Impostors]—i.e. that there has existed since prehistoric times, side by side with the dominant religion, a dark, secret, and terrible system of worship nocturnally practiced by the peasants and including the most horrible rites and incantations. This worship, Miss Murray believes, is handed down from the squat Mongoloid peoples who inhabited Europe before the coming of the Aryans; and reflects the life and thought of a barbarous culture in which stockbreeding had not yet been supplanted by agriculture. This latter feature is clear from the dates of the two great nocturnal feasts and orgies… Roodmas, or April 30, and Hallowe’en, or October 31—dates having a connexion with nothing whatever in agriculture (unlike such agricultural festivals as Easter, Harvest-home, etc.), but corresponding with uncanny fidelity to the breeding-seasons of the flocks and herds. Buttressed by an amazing array of sound documentary evidence taken from witchcraft trial reports, Miss Murray unhesitatingly asserts that the similarities and consistencies in the testimony of witch-suspects cannot be explained on any assumption save one which allows for a certain amount of actuality. In her mind, practically all the confessions treat not of dreams and delusions, but form highly coloured versions of real meetings and ceremonies conducted in deep woods and lonely places betwixt midnight and dawn, attended by secretly annotated peasants stolen thither one by one, and presided over by local cult-leaders clad in animal skins and called the “Devils” of their particular branches or “Covens”. The hideous nature of the cult-rites is amply attested—and the whole subject takes on a new fascination when one reflects that the system probably survived to comparatively recent times. Miss Murray has no difficulty in tracing the cult’s presence in the Salem witchcraft of 1692, and entures to name the Reverend George Burroughs as “Devil” of the particular branch or Coven involved. Cotton Mather thus stands vindicated, and displayed as the suppressor of a movement involving the most loathsome and offensive practices. Another point of interest is the association of Joan of Arc with the witch-cult—a circumstance which makes one weep less at her fiery martyrdom. The use of this newly unearthed lore in a study of American superstition will be quite new, so that I really believe my book will have some degree of interest if it is ever suffered to materialise.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 Mar 1924, Letters from New York 53-54

The book never materialized, but Lovecraft melded Murray’s hypothesis of an underground witch-cult practicing remnants of a pagan religion and married it to the idea of primitive pre-human survivals and their connection with fairies (“the Little People”) in the fiction of Arthur Machen (which he had also lately been reading), and formed his own theory of history—which would go on to inform much of his fiction. Not for nothing would Richard Upton Pickman in “Pickman’s Model” have a Salem Village ancestor hanged for witchcraft in 1692, or that Joseph Curwen would flee from there to Providence, R. I. in the annals of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

The combination of Machen and Murray was assisted by Murray including in her work certain euhemeristic ideas and scientific racialism:

The dwarf race which at one time inhabited Europe has left few concrete remains, but it has survived in innumerable stories of fairies and elves. Nothing, however, is known of the religious beliefs and cults of these early people, except the fact that every seven years they made a human sacrifice to their god—‘And aye at every seven years they pay the teind to hell’—and that like the Khonds they stole children from the neighbouring races and brought them up to be the victims. That there was a strong connexion between witches and fairies had been known to all students of fairy lore. I suggest that the cult of the fairy or primitive race survived until less than three hundred years ago, and that the people who practised it were known as witches. I have already pointed out that many of the witch-belief and practices coincide with those of an existing dwarf race, viz. the Lapps.
—Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe, 238

The Sámi people (historically Lapps, Laplanders) are an indigenous people in Northern Europe; racial anthropologists in Lovecraft’s time categorized them as “Mongoloid” (along with Asians and Native Americans) as opposed to the majority population of Europe which was “Caucasoid.” Although this was not the primary focus of Murray’s work, Lovecraft took this as concrete scientific evidence to support his existing prejudices. Along with Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (1890), Murray’s book offers what in the 1920s seemed a very rational, dogmatic, albeit radical re-interpretation of a chunk of European (and at least one episode of American) history.

Not everyone accepted The Witch-Cult in Western Europe as genuine; Jacqueline Simpson in Margaret Murray: Who Believed Her and Why? chronicles some of the academic blowback, including Murray’s misrepresentation and misinterpretation of sources. Lovecraft was at best peripherally aware of this academic debate, with two exceptions:

The witch-cult was an objective example of that element of reaction against mediaeval piety which appears in certain leering gargoyles & in various sinister undertones in literary & other art. As for its origin—I am wholly against Summers & with Miss Murray. Summers has let his serious acceptance of Christianity bias him. He is blind to dozens of points of resemblance betwixt witch-cult practices (especially festival dates) & primitive-reliques of Nature-worship all over Europe, & makes a very weak argument in his earlier witchcraft book which Koenig lent me.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Nov 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 484

The theories of Miss Murray regarding the source of the cult have been attacked from different angles by scholars as antipodal as Joseph McCabe & the Rev. Montague Summers, but I still think they are as plausible as any yet advanced. You will, I think, appreciate “The White People” anew upon giving it a post-Murray re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz Leiber, 19 Dec 1936, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 302

Joseph McCabe was a noted atheist, and while Lovecraft doesn’t cite the exact work in question, McCabe made a glowing endorsement of Murray and her book in The Story of Religious Controversy (1929). Montague Summers also addressed Murray’s book at some length in The History of Witchcraft and Demonology (1926), commenting at one point:

Miss Murray does not seem to suspect that Witchcraft was in truth a foul and noisome heresy, the poison of the Manichees. Her “Dianic cult,” which name she gives to this “ancient religion” supposed to have survived until the Middle Ages and even later and to have been a formidable rival to Christianity, is none other than black heresy and the worship of Satan, no primitive belief with pre-agricultural rites, in latter days persecuted, misinterpreted, and misunderstood. It is true that in the Middle Ages Christianity hadnot a rival but a foe, the eternal enemy of the Church Militant against whom she yet contends to-day, the dark Lord of that city which is set contrariwise to the City of God, the Terrible Shadow of destruction and despair.

Miss Murray with tireless industry has accumulated a vast number of details by the help of which she seeks to build up and support her imaginative thesis. Even those that show the appropriation by the cult of evil of the more hideous heath practices, both of lust and cruelty, which prevailed among savage or decadent peoples, afford no evidence whatsoever of any continuity of an earlier relgiion, whilst by far the greater number of the facts she quotes are deflected, although no doubt unconsciously, and sharply wrested so as to be patent of the sginification it is endeavoured to read into them. (ibid. 32-33)

Summers’ critique is undercut by his belief that witches were both Satanic and had magical powers; McCabe’s because his antipathy toward religion led him to be too credulous in accepting Murray’s thesis wholeheartedly. While scholars, neither were academics or anthropologists. Lovecraft himself in another letter suggests that Murray’s book is “probably about 85% right” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 463)

There is no reference in Lovecraft’s published letters to Murray’s sequel, The God of the Witches (1931); he apparently never read it, and perhaps never heard of it. Murray herself has very little to say about her witch-research in her autobiography:

Though my Witch Cult in Western Europe did not appear till 1921 the greater part of the research had been done during the war. The book received a hostile reception from many strictly christian sects and reviewers, but it made its way in spite of oppostion.

My second book on the same subejct, which is really on the survival of pagan beliefs and rites under a veneer of Christianity, was The God of the Witches. It was a flop and was remaindered in two years. But it was the 1939-45 war that made it known. I think because it was a change from the monotony of the kind of books that are published in and just after a a war. Also as a remainder it was cheap, selling at five shillings.

My view of Joan of Arc roused, and still rouses, fierce opposition. I am not usually a fighter, but when I am attacked with words like “I don’t believe one word you say about Joan of Arc,” I have to defend myself.

I have one effective reply which is, “Have you studied the original documents?” I have always found that these ardent worshippers have to acknowledge, when pressed, that they have not read anything of the kind. then I retort, “Well, I have,” and I reel off the names of the contemporary recorders (and there are a good many of them) while my critic’s eyes get rounder and rounder. I wind up by saying, “It is hardly worth while to continue the discussion, is it? For you and I have such different standpoints. I argue from contemporary documentary evidence, and you from hearsay.” The book was re-published after the war and has proved a best seller.
—Margaret Murray, My First Hundred Years (1963), 104-105

The Lovecraftian legacy of Margaret Murray is embodied in “witch-haunted Arkham” in all of its incarnations, in the “Dreams in the Witch House” and the witch-cult in general that appears in works such as “The Festival” and “The Thing on the Doorstep.” Works inspired directly by Lovecraft in this vein include “The Salem Horror” (1937) by Henry Kuttner, “Satan’s Servants” (1949) by Robert Bloch, and the graphic novel Providence (2015-2107) by Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows. The Witch-Cult in Western Europe is referenced by name in Mythos stories such as “The Fairground Horror” (1976) by Brian Lumley and “A Critical Commentary on the Necronomicon” (1988) by Robert M. Price.

The long tail of Murray’s influence on fantasy fiction encompasses more than just Lovecraft and those he influenced. Herbert Gorman in “The Place Called Dagon” (1927), which Lovecraft read, shows a survival of the Salem witch-cult; so does the film I Married A Witch (1942), Fritz Leiber’s novel Conjure Wife (1943), etc. all the way to Lords of Salem (2013) and American Horror Story: Coven (2014). Her books were a direct inspiration for the creation of Wicca by Gerald Gardner and Doreen Valiente, and the prolific occult literature produced from those fertile grounds has, in turn, influenced a great deal of horror and weird fiction…and, of course, Lovecraftian occultism:

In the west, the conjuration, cultivation, or worship of this Power was strenuously opposed with the advent of the Solar, Monotheistic religions and those who clung to the Old Ways were effectively extinguished. The wholesale slaughter of those called “Witches” during the Inquisition is an example of this […] The current revival of the cult called WICCA is a manifestation of the ancient secret societies that sought to tap this telluric, occult force and use it to their own advantage, and to the advantage of humanity, as was the original intent.
—Simon, Necronomicon xxii

Anthropology has pushed back and moved on. Outside of occult circles, there is no strong belief that Murray’s “witch-cult” actually existed. Historians and anthropologists have a better understanding of witch trials in the early modern period, both in Europe and the Americas. Instead of an organized pagan survival, there is a mess of politics, religion, folklore, and disparate human dramas and tragedies.

What does that mean for the Mythos?

For the most part, Mythos fiction reflects the syntax of the period. The Salem Witch Trials are a part of the history of Massachusetts; Lovecraft himself never attributes any of the innocent victims of that hysteria as actual witches in his fiction, instead he added fictional characters such as Keziah Mason and Joseph Curwen to the milieu. These characters and their stories are dependent on the historical reality of the witch trials, but the interpretation of that history is still up to contemporary authors and audiences.

The “cult” of the Stella Sapiente in Moore & Burrows’ Providence, for example, looks very little like the 13-member covens that Margaret Murray wrote about in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe, but it retains certain features derived from Murray that feature in Lovecraft’s work. The image of Nyarlathotep as the “Black Man” of the witch-cult remains intact in many Mythos stories, and is derived directly from Murray and Machen as discussed in “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

So Margaret Murray and The Witch-Cult in Western Europe remain a historical touchstone for the Mythos. Both a part of it and oddly apart from it. The book is not “canon” in the sense that its ideas are absolutely true within the fictional reality of the Mythos, yet it is in the canon of works which directly influenced and are referenced by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, alongside The King in Yellow and The Book of Dzyan, Arthur Machen’s The Three Imposters, etc.


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

“Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter

For the next few years I saw Mrs. Miniter quite often at meetings and festivals of the Hub Club, and always admired the effectiveness with which she devised entertainment and maintained interest. In April, 1921, her quaintly named and edited paper The Muffin Man contained a highly amusing parody of one of my weird fictional attempts… “Falco Ossifracus, by Mr. Goodguile”…thought it was not of a nature to arouse hostility.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Mrs. Miniter—Estimates and Recollections” (1938) in the Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft 1.381

Edith Dowe Miniter was a professional journalist during the 1880s to 1900s, writing both articles and perceptive stories that dealt often with the perspective of women in New England; her sole published novel was Our Natpuski Neighbors (1916), chronicling the experience of an immigrant Polish family to Massachusetts—and the townfolks’ not always positive reaction to their new neighbors.

Along with professional journalism, Edith Miniter was a powerful voice in amateur journalism, a leading voice of the Hub Amateur Journalism Club in Boston. An idealist, she was not one for compromise and engaged in fierce battles over the administration of the National Amateur Press Association, which caused one friend to write:

In spite of unusual difficulties and unforseeable betrayals, her administration was able and efficient; and it ended forever the tradition that the highest official position within out gift was earmarked “For Men Only.”
—James F. Morton, “Some Thoughts on Edith Miniter” in Dead Houses and Other Works 79

In 1920, she met the young amateur Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and they became good friends through her final years, with a visit to her home in 1928 providing some of the details to “The Dunwich Horror.” For all that Miniter and Lovecraft were friends, their tastes did not all run in the same line. Lovecraft reported that:

Mrs. Miniter did not care for stories of a macabre or supernatural cast; regarding them as hopelessly extravagant and unrepresentative of life.
H. P. LovecraftCollected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft1.381

At the time, Lovecraft was publishing little else. His published fiction in amateur periodicals in 1921 included “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “Dagon” (1919), “The White Ship” (1919), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920), “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” (1920), “The Cats of Ulthar” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), and “Polaris” (1920). It was in this spirit that Miniter chose to tweak her younger friend’s nose with one of the first parodies of his style. In her epitaph to the story, Miniter wrote:

It pleasures us exceedingly to offer our readers a condensed novel by the renowned Mr. Goodguile. Why pursue the works of this author throught Tryouts, Vagrants and National Amateurs, as yet in press, when here is the quintessence? Similar attention is promised later to such of our eminent fictionists as merit it.
—Edith Miniter, Dead Houses and Other Works 117

The Tryout, Vagrant, and National Amateur well all amateur journalism magazines where Lovecraft’s work had appeared; the name “Goodguile” (aside from being an obvious play on Lovecraft), was a jab at Lovecraft’s love of pseudonyms during this period, as was used in “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) by Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) by Winifred Virginia Jackson & H. P. Lovecraft. In this, Miniter was unknowingly anticipating the work of pasticheurs and parodists of several generations in the future, such as “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom!” (1986) by “Sally Theobald” (Robert M. Price).

The primary inspiration for Miniter’s parody appears to be “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” at least so far as the protagonist is their with his close male associate in a graveyard echoes some of the essentials of that story. Lovecraft had not yet written “The Unnameable” or “The Hound,” but the fact that those stories hit so close to the same formula shows how squarely Miniter’s critique hit home.

Other shots followed, and ones Lovecraft and their mutual friends could hardly miss:

“Your pal,” came the response, “Iacchus Smithsonia,” the name was originally John Smith, but it is always my will that my friends bear a name of my choosing and as cumbersome a one as possible, “is cleaning out Tomb 268.” (ibid, 118)

This is a jab at Lovecraft’s habit of doing exactly this with friends, addressing them by nicknames in letters and sometimes other places; famously this was adopted by his circle of pulp friends so that Clark Ashton Smith became Klarkash-Ton, and Robert E. Howard was Two-Gun Bob, but it was applied to many as a sign of affection. In her surviving letters to Lovecraft, Miniter addresses him as “Mr. Goodguile.” (ibid. 46)

A little farther down, she takes a shot at Lovecraft’s occasionally ultraviolet prose and fondness for obscure, archaic, or technical terminology:

“I am really sorry to have to ask you to absquatulate,” he said, employing the chaice diction which is so peculiar to we of the educated aristocracy, “but this ain’ no place for a feller with cold feet.” (ibid.)

As parodies go, Miniter’s “Falco Ossifracus” probably hits home a little less to contemporary readers than The Adventures of Samurai Cat (1984) by Mark E. Rogers or “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price. Lovecraft’s mythos had not strictly been put to paper yet, as the first tale in the Arkham cycle, “The Picture in the House” was written in December 1920 but not published until the summer of 1921, so Miniter had no such target to purposefully aim for.

Yet if it lacks for not being a true pastiche, or for going after what today might seem to be obvious targets, there is no doubt that the good-natured shots aimed at Lovecraft must have hit home. The well-intentioned roasting was likewise received with good humor considering they were still subsequently on good terms.

“Falco Ossifracus” first appeared in The Muffin Man (Apr 1921), and has been reprinted by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. in Going Home and Other Amateur Writings  (1995) and Dead Houses and Other Works (2008).


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The influenza epidemic swept the globe during the final stages of the First World War in 1918. In 1919 Winifred was living and working in Boston, putting out her own amateur journal The Bonnet. She had married Horace Jordan in 1915, and in 1919 they were divorced; she resumed her maiden name of Jackson around 1920 or 1921. It was in this fertile period, 1919-1920, that Lovecraft and Jackson shared their dreams and wrote their collaborationLovecraft borrowing the title from his prose poem “Nyarlathotep” (The United Amateur, Nov 1920) which begins “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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