In the new issue I found more good stuff than usual. “The Canal” is truly fine—real terror woven into the inmost atmosphere—& “Bells of Oceana” comes close to packing a genuine kick.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Nov 1927, Essential Solitude 1.113
“The Canal” by Everil Worell was first published in Weird Tales December 1927, which is where Lovecraft read it. This was Worrell’s fourth published story in Weird Tales; she would publish 19 in the magazine between 1926 and 1954, when the pulp ceased publication, being one of the prolific women weird talers who made their mark on the magazine. Lovecraft wasn’t keen on every story Worrell wrote…but “The Canal” was special, and Lovecraft repeatedly listed it among the best stories ever published by Weird Tales:
Looking over the whole contents of W.T., one’s final impression is that of a devastating desert of crudity & mediocrity, relieved by a very few oases. The high spots that impress me are Suter’s “Beyond the Door”, Humphrey’s “The Floor Above”, Arnold’s “The Night Wire”, Worrell’s “The Canal”, Burks’ “Bells of Oceana”, & Leahy’s “In Amundsen’s Tent”. Those things have the atmosphere & suggestion which spell power.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 18 Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 1.247
As for my favourite W.T. authors—it would be hard to make a list. The very best tales have been written by persons not at all well known. In my opinion, the relaly high spots run something like this:
Beyond the Door___________Paul Suter
The Floor Above___________M. Humphreys
The Night Wire____________H. F. Arnold
In Amundsen’s Tent_________John Martin Leahy
The Canal________________Everil Worrill [sic]
Bells of Oceana____________Arthur J. Burks
Passing of a God___________Henry S. Whitehead
[…] W0rrill [sic] is good in the main, but has produced some fearsome trash.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 19 Jun 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 18-19
Yes—”The Canal” is great stuff. I once cited it as one of the 6 best stories WT ever printed—the other 5 being “Beyond the Door”, “The Floor Above”, “In Amundsen’s Tent”, “The Night Wire”, & “Bells of Oceana.” The author is a woman, & has written other stuff—some very poor (“Light Echoes”) & some distinctly good (“the Bird of Space”).
—H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 22 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 247-248
Lovecraft wasn’t originally aware of Worrell’s gender, and refers to her as “he” in his correspondence until 1930, when he received a bit of news:
[Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales] adds that Everil Worrell (who turns out to be a woman) is about to become associate editor of W.T. & Oriental Tales.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 242 (cf. ES 1.281)
Oriental Stories was a new magazine produced by Popular Fiction Publishing the publishers of Weird Tales and edited by Farnsworth Wright, with the first issue appearing in Oct-Nov 1930; Wright also wanted to bring out a third magazine titled Strange Stories, but a dispute regarding the name hung up production and SS was eventually abandoned. Lovecraft was positive about the idea of Worrell as associate editor, based solely on her fiction—and that mainly “The Canal”:
I hope that the co-editorship of Everil Worrell, whose “Canal” shewed a genuine comprehension of the principles of weirdness, will cause some slight improvement in the magazine’s principles of selection.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 246
Unfortunately, it was not to be. Oriental Stories by itself was a strain on Popular Fiction Publishing’s resources, with Weird Tales having to go bimonthly for three issues in 1931 to help keep Oriental Stories afloat. Whether the financial strain couldn’t support an associate editor, or Wright didn’t need an associate editor because the magazines went bimonthly, or Worrell chose not to accept the position—she did not join the Popular Fiction Publishing editorial staff.
What was it about “The Canal” that attracted Lovecraft’s undying appreciation? The protagonist is coincidentally very Lovecraftian, with a love of nocturnal walks and strange places and an appreciation of odd beauty. So too, some of the philosophical themes, such as the loss of freedom that an office job would require, might have struck a chord. The premise of the plot—quite literally love at first sight—is not at all the usual kind of story that Lovecraft enjoyed. But as with “Shambleau” (1933) by C. L. Moore and “Black God’s Kiss” (1934) by C. L. Moore, Lovecraft could appreciate sudden and sensual attachments if the story had a truly weird element, carefully told with the appropriate atmosphere. Werewolves and vampires were rather conventional horrors that held little interest for Lovecraft, but they had their place in the weird oeuvre, and HPL never said a word against Dracula’s brides in the castle.
Lovecraft’s appreciation for “The Canal” led to a brief but illuminating discussion with another master of the weird tale:
By the way, I have just been re-reading “The Canal”, which you mention. It certainly creates a memorable atmosphere; but the one flaw, to me, is the wholesale dynamiting, which seems to introduce a jarring note among the shadowy supernatural horrors. However, this is just my own reaction. I would have had the narrator simply kill himself, overwhelmed by despair at the irremediable scourge he had loosed, and leave the horror to spread unchecked. However, I shouldn’t be captious: it is the only good vampire story I have ever seen, apart from Gautier’s “Clarimonde” and my own “Rendezvous in Averoigne.” […] It seems to me also that Everil Worrel’s co-editorship should help to counter-balance some of Wright’s dunder-headed decisions; and I shall re-submit Satampra and perhaps also “The Door to Saturn” at some future date.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 254
“The Canal certainly has atmosphere. The final dynamiting—like my dynamiting of the house on Tempest Mountain in “The Lurking Fear”—is probably less subtly handled than it ought to be, yet is in a certain sense necessary as a means of explaining why the whole world hasn’t “gone vampire”. Whenever a fantastic tale introduces a horror which, if unchecked, would shortly produce strikingly visible results throughout the earth, it is necessary to explain why those results have not occurred—necessary, in short, to check the full action of the thing—unless the tale is laid in the future. There is really no way of escaping this dilemma. We must either explain the present survival of the existing order, or choose a remotely future period at which the existing order is assumed to be destroyed. The only adumbration of a middle course open to us is to have the original horror so subtle as to produce only imperceptible effects for a very long period, or to have a partial checking in which the action of the horror is vastly minimised or delayed. In “Dagon” I shewed a horror that may appear, but that has not yet made any effort to do so. In “Cthulhu” I had a coming horror checked by the same convulsion of Nature which produced it. [earthquake-sinking of R’lyeh] In “The Colour Out of Space” I had a partial checking. Just enough of the Outside influence remains in the well to provide a slow, creeping blight. And in “Dunwich” I had full artificial destruction, as in “The Canal”. When one does have full artificial destruction, the important thing is not to make the process too bald, crude, or incongruous with the atmosphere or action of the narrative as a whole. I agree that very few good vampire tales exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 7 Nov 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 261-262
This is a rare case where Lovecraft gives us insight on the craft behind writing his stories, in part because the nature of the ending of “The Canal” caused him to reflect on how he ended his own stories. There is an interesting point of comparison there: when August Derleth reprinted “The Canal” in The Sleeping and the Dead (1947), the story was revised, cutting about 2,000 words and radically changing the ending; the abridged version can be read on Wikisource. The abridged ending is more melancholy and less climactic than the first; the intention of suicide remains, but there is no dynamite, no colony of bat-creatures; it is, in fact, a bit closer to Clark Ashton Smith’s suggested ending.
Lovecraft’s appreciation of “The Canal” did not lessen with the years, and his letters in 1935 give evidence of that when Worrell’s story was reprinted in the January 1935 Weird Tales. His two longest comments to younger Weird Tales fans are succinct:
In the previous issue, the “Canal” reprint was the real feature. Yes—Everill Worrell was said by Wright to belong to the feminine gender. He once considered hiring her as associate editor, but finally decided not to. Viewed collectively, her work was very uneven—descended from the high level of “The Canal” to the unutterable namby-pamby of “Light-Echoes”…rather a Blackwoodian condition. I have seen nothing new of hers in years, & have no idea whether she is dead or alive. But “The Canal” is a landmark in WT history.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11? May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 259
“The Canal” is one of the most powerful tales W.T. ever printed—but I didn’t like “Light Echoes”, which to me suggested the namby-pamby. “The Bird of Space” wasn’t bad. I understand from Wright that Everil Worrell is a woman. He once thought of hiring her as assistant editor, but later decided not to. I don’t know her address, but fancy WT would gladly forward a letter address to her in its care. She ought to be glad to furnish an autograph to one who appreciates her work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 31 May 1935, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 437
Everil Worrell was not dead, though Lovecraft could be forbidden for thinking so; she published no stories in Weird Tales under her own name after 1931 until 1939, two years after Lovecraft’s own death. Though they never met or corresponded, she was one of Lovecraft’s esteemed peers at Weird Tales.
“The Canal” would go on to be reprinted many times, sometimes in abridged form. Leonard Nimoy in his directing debut provided an adaptation of the story for The Night Gallery titled “Death on a Barge.” The original published text of the story can be read for free online.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard and Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
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