The Dybbuk (1925) by S. Ansky

up noon—window man & curtains—els telephone—out to York to meet him—up to Sonny’s—AM. Mus., Met. Mus. bus to library—gallery & reading room—els lv. read & Automat—down to N’hood playhouse—Dybbuck—bus & subway—els lv. Penn. Sta see Miss L home—W Side pk—return to 169
—H. P. Lovecraft’s diary entry for 17 December 1925, Collected Essays 5.174

By early 1925, H. P. Lovecraft had effectively separated from his wife. She had gone out to the midwest to work, returning to New York every few weeks to see him. He took a room at 169 Clinton Street, in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, which was quickly filling up with immigrants. Unable to find work, away from his wife and his family, and suffering the indignity of a break-in to his apartment in May where even his clothes were stolen, his bias against immigrants had begun to reach a fever pitch in his letters.

In mid-December of 1925, his friend Edward Lloyd Sechrist was in town. There was a new play being performed at the Neighborhood Playhouse, and in between visits with friends such as Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. and visits to museums and libraries, theatre was one of the things Lovecraft still liked about New York. They would have gone through the cold streets in their winter suits; bought their tickets, found their way through the theater and waited for the house lights to dim…and in the darkness before the curtain rose a voice called out…

Why, oh why,
Did the soul descend
From the highest height
To the deepest end?
The greatest fall
Contains the upward flight.
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 4

Then the curtain rose.

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The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

“S. Ansky” was the pen-name of Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport, a Jewish author, playwright, and folklorist from the Russian Empire. The Dybbuk, or Between Two Worlds based on Jewish tradition, was written from 1913-1916 in Russian, then translated to Yiddish; it was first performed in Yiddish in Poland in 1920. It was translated into English by Henry G. Alsberg and Winifred Katzin, and opened at the Neighborhood Playhouse in New York City on 15 December 1925; it would run about 120 performances.

Daily_News_Wed__Dec_16__1925_

Contemporary newspaper reviews were mixed; the supernatural was nothing new to theatre, but the weird drama with its spectral plot and unfamiliar setting and references to Jewish culture and religion was undoubtedly a bit different than most audiences or critics were expecting. Keep in mind that Dracula would not hit the stage in New York until 1927; and Fiddler on the Roof would have to wait until 1964.

It would certainly have been novel for Lovecraft. In his native Providence, he had seldom met any Jews. It was not until Lovecraft came to New York that he encountered many Jewish immigrants from Europe, or anything of Jewish culture.

In his letters home to his aunts Lillian Clark and Annie Gamwell in Providence, Lovecraft had taken to writing long, diary-like entries regarding his experiences in the Big Apple, which included such a scene:

Here exist assorted Jews in the absolutely unassimilated state, with their ancestral beards, skull-caps, and general costumes—which make them very picturesque, and not nearly so offensive as the strident, pushing Jews who affect clean shaves and American dress. In this particular section, where Hebrew books are vended from pushcarts, and patriarchal rabbis totter in high hats and frock coats, there are far less offensive faces than in the general subways of the town—probably because most of the pushing commercial Jews are from another colony where the blood is less pure.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29-30 Sep 1924,
Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.168

A week after Lovecraft saw “The Dybbuk,” he was composing Yuletide verses for his friends, he wrote to his aunt:

In writing Sechrist I alluded to his Polynesian & African travels, & to the hellish play—“The Dybbuk”—to which he so generously treated me last week: 

May Polynesian skies they Yuletide bless,
And primal gods impart thee happiness;
Zimbabwe’s wonders hint mysterious themes,
And ne’er a Dybbuk lurk to mar they dreams!

—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22-23 Dec 1925, LFF 1.513-514

The play impressed Lovecraft enough that when he composed his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” for his friend W. Paul Cook’s amateur journal The Recluse, he felt obliged to mention it in the brief section on Jewish influence on weird fiction:

A very flourishing, though till recently quite hidden, branch of weird literature is that of the Jews, kept alive and nourished in obscurity by the sombre heritage of early Eastern magic, apocalyptic literature, and cabbalism. The Semitic mind, like the Celtic and Teutonic, seems to possess marked mystical inclinations; and the wealth of underground horror-lore surviving in ghettoes and synagogues must be much more considerable than is generally imagined. Cabbalism itself, so prominent during the Middle Ages, is a system of philosophy explaining the universe as emanations of the Deity, and involving the existence of strange spiritual realms and beings apart from the visible world, of which dark glimpses may be obtained through certain secret incantations. Its ritual is bound up with mystical interpretations of the Old Testament, and attributes an esoteric significance to each letter of the Hebrew alphabet—a circumstance which has imparted to Hebrew letters a sort of spectral glamour and potency in the popular literature of magic. Jewish folklore has preserved much of the terror and mystery of the past, and when more thoroughly studied is likely to exert considerable influence on weird fiction. The best examples of its literary use so far are the German novel The Golem, by Gustav Meyrink, and the drama The Dybbuk, by the Jewish writer using the pseudonym “Ansky”. The former, wildly popular through the cinema a few years ago, treats of a legendary artificial giant animated by a mediaeval rabbin of Prague according to a certain cryptic formula. The Dybbuk, translated and produce in America in 1925, describes with singular power the possession of a living body by the evil soul of a dead man. Both golems and dybbuks are fixed types, and serve as frequent ingredients of later Jewish tradition.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927 version), CE 2.100

Several years later, Lovecraft would have occasion to revise “Supernatural Horror in Literature” into its final form; in discussing The Dybbuk he added “and more recently produced as an opera.” The operatic version was in Italian, and ran as Il dibuk in 1934, and made its way to New York by 1935. Lovecraft’s friend Richard F. Searight had seen the opera, and this elicted from the Old Gent in Providence his deepest appreciation of the play:

Your description of the opera “The Dybbuk” is extremely fascinating to me, especially since I had the good luck to see the original play in 1925—when a translation was presented in New York. The mere play (which was very well staged & acted) was impressive enough, & I can well imagine the additional power derived from an appropriate musical score. From our account, I judge that the opera follows the order & events of the drama quite closely. Mention of a dance of beggars vaguely reminds me of something in the play—connected with a garden scene. The exorcism was very powerful, even without music. I surely hope I can encounter the opera sooner or later—though I don’t know when I shall next visit New York. The play produced a very potent impression on me, & I had a vague idea of trying to base a story on the dybbuk idea. I saved my programme—which had copious notes on the particular sect of Jews most addicted to cablistic research (I think they were called the Chassidim)—but that young rascal Long lost it when I lent it to him! Without this ready-made data, I let the story-ida languish—though I suppose I could find out about dybbuks, & about the Chassidim, in the great Jewish Encyclopaedia which is available at most large libraries. [E. Hoffmann] Price got a lot of stuff about Lilith from this source. What is more—this work might shed a picturesque light on the Golem belief.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 12 Jun 1936, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price and Richard F. Searight 415-416

“Chassadim” is a reference to Hasidic Judaism, a spiritual revivalist sect that arose in Ukraine in the 18th century, and which spread through Eastern Europe and was carried to the United States by immigrants. Culturally conservative regarding their traditional clothing, it was likely Hasidic Jews who caught Lovecraft’s eye when he arrived in New York.

The idea of Lovecraft drawing inspiration from Jewish folkore is not quite as far-fetched as it might seem. “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired in part by his experiences in New York, includes references to Lilith and aspects of medieval European occultism connected to or partially derived from Jewish sources (although in this case Lovecraft relied on the Encyclopedia Britannica rather than the Jewish Encyclopedia). The idea of the dybbuk as a possessing spirit has parallels with several of Lovecraft’s stories, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “The Thing on the Doorstep,” and The Shadow Out of Time, and Lovecraft had written down ideas for other stories in the same vein, which like his Dybbuk-inspired tale, was never to be written.

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The Dybbuk at the Neighborhood Playhouse, New York, 1925

Rabbi Azriel. Did anyone ask the dybbuk who he is and why he’s possessing your daughter?
—”The Dybbuk” by S. Ansky, trans. Joachim Neugroschel
The Dybbuk and the Jewish Imagination: A Haunted Reader 36

Ansky’s play is a human drama in a world of spiritual and material forces, intertwined and influencing one anothers; human action has supernatural reprecussions, and supernatural forces can influence and afflict people. It deals with the interplay of these forces, but is focused very much on the people involved, their thoughts and emotions, the stresses they undergo in their daily lives as they strive and struggle and work to fit their role in the world.

Rabbi Azriel suffers his moments of crisis, and even the dybbuk is a sympathetic figure that begs the rabbi not to exorcise him. It is not a the antagonist Hollywood approach to the expelling of an evil spirit or demon at all…and it is notable that Lovecraft, whatever parallels his work may have in the idea of an alien intelligence possessing a body, never offers exorcism as a potential source of hope. The bittersweet ending of would-be bride-and-groom in The Dybbuk is almost the exact opposite of what Lovecraft would concoct as the final fate of Asenath Waite and Edward Derby.

Yet it is easy to see how he might well have been moved by the exorcism scene, the powerful cry of the lost soul clinging onto the one piece of its past that it can, with nowhere else to go and nothing else to anchor itself…and Lovecraft himself was barely clinging on, surrounded by his books and furniture, all that he had taken with him from Providence to the New York he increasingly found alienating and strange.

H. P. Lovecraft would experience and appreciate few works of Jewish culture in his life, yet he held The Dybbuk in high esteem—and we are left to wonder what might have happened, if a program had not been lost, and if Lovecraft had sat down on a park bench one day after careful thought and some research, to pen a new tale.


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

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“The Were-Snake” (1925) by Frank Belknap Long, Jr.

My contributions to the Mythos were of assorted shapes and sizes, ranging from the tiny, flesh-devouring Doels, who inhabited an alien dimension shrouded in night and chaos, to the monstrous Chaugnar Faugn, whom only the suicidally inclined would have mistaken for a pachyderm. I also contributed one scenic vista, the mysterious, perpetually mist-shrouded Plateau of Leng, and one forbidden book, John Dee’s English translation of The Necronomicon, which I placed at the head of The Space Eaters when that story first appeared in Weird Tales […]
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 23-24

To hear Long tell it, his first contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos—and the first stories written as part of the Mythos, outside of Lovecraft’s own pen—were “The Space Eaters” (Weird Tales July 1928) and “The Hounds of Tindalos” (Weird Tales March 1929). These stories have been enshrined in canon as much as anything written by anyone other than H. P. Lovecraft himself, and predate anything written specifically incorporating references to the Mythos by Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, August Derleth, or others.

What most compilers of Mythos stories seem to forget is that the first published story with a Mythos connection by Long was actually his third story professionally published: “The Were-Snake” (Weird Tales September 1925). Looking at Long’s memoirs, and the collections of his fiction, one gets the impression that perhaps Long wished it would be forgotten. Although reprinted twice during his lifetime in anthologies, like “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch this story has never been published in any Cthulhu Mythos collection, and remains absent from Long’s The Early Long and Arkham House anthologies.

Normally, when looking into such matters, Lovecraft’s letters are a great asset. However, in this case most of his letters to Long have not been published, and the references to the story in Lovecraft’s published correspondence is minimal:

Next month my “Temple” & Belknap’s “Were-Snake” will appear.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 Jul 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.306

Hope your friend will get some vignette & tailpiece jobs—you might tell Wright it’s about time he stopped using Brosnatch’s ancient designs for Belknap’s “Desert Lich” & “Were-Snake” & Seabury Quinn’s “Servants of Satan” in this capacity!”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Jan 1932, Essential Solitude 2.444

Andrew Brosnatch was the artist that did the header-pieces for Frank Belknap Long’s stories; the art was re-used periodically in Weird Tales as filler for years afterward. Other than that, there is nothing much in Lovecraft’s correspondence: 1925 was before most of his pulp friends began to correspond with him, and if Lovecraft and Long discussed the story, those letters haven’t come to light yet. What we know of this story’s genesis, then, is mostly down to inference.

Shortly after Weird Tales hit the stands in 1923, H. P. Lovecraft wrote to the editor Edwin Baird—and was soon enmeshed in correspondence with both Baird and the pulp magazine’s owner, J. C. Henneberger. Several submissions from Lovecraft had been accepted at Weird Tales, and in 1924 Lovecraft encouraged his young friend in amateur journalism to submit his own stories to the magazine:

Now, Child, send Grandpa that horror story! If you will be good and write lots and lots of terrible things, I believe you may have a chance to land them in Weird Tales, for as you will see when I send you the Henneberger letter, they are desperately in need of material which is basically unconventional. Pray picture to yourself the curiosity of a fiend-loving Old Gentleman, and delay no longer in making Grandpa your nameless monstrosity! About the Ashton Smith reference in my Hound—I omitted that myself, on advice of Eddy (not Poe but my local protege C. M. Eddy), who said that the editor would object to such exploitation of an artist-poet whose work I am trying to push with Weird Tales. Now that I see how solidly I stand with both Baird and Henneberger, I am sorry I took the advice—but what’s done is done. Another time I may do some free advertising for Smith and Sonny Belknap and Mortonius and everybody!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.292-293

“The Hound” was published in the February 1924 issue of Weird Tales; the surviving typescript shows Lovecraft made a few alterations from the original which appear in the published text:

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held the unknown and unnamable drawings of Clark Ashton Smith.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (original text)

A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held certain unknown and unnamable drawings which it was rumoured Goya had perpetrated but dared not acknowledge.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound” (as published)

This would have been, if published, one of Lovecraft’s first literary in-jokes—Lovecraft was already in correspondence with Clark Ashton Smith at the time—and together with Lovecraft’s urge that Long write and submit his stuff to Weird Tales for publication is probably what led, ultimately, to “The Were-Snake.”

Long’s first stories published in Weird Tales were “The Desert Lich” (WT Nov 1924) and “Death-Waters” (WT Dec 1924); both tales can be said to be typical of his very early professional efforts, dealing with white people in exotic settings and stumbling across something dangerous and uncanny. Later Long would grow as a writer with more complex plots and characterization, but these short pieces were in good company for the early issues of Weird Tales, which was still feeling its way after the editorial shakeup that had seen Baird (and Henneberger) ousted and Farnsworth Wright in the editorial chair.

By the time “Death-Waters” was published, Lovecraft had come down to New York City, married Sonia H. Greene, and taken up residence; he was seeing a good deal of Long and the rest of the gang in the Kalem Club. Long’s third story in Weird Tales was “The Were-Snake” (WT Nov 1925)—published nearly a year after his last one. Why the long delay? Rejection, possibly, or backlog; even if Long wrote it in the spring of 1925, it likely wouldn’t be published until winter…and there are reasons to suspect it might have been written in the spring of 1925.

“The nethermost caverns,” wrote the mad Arab, “are not for the fathoming of eyes that see; for their marvels are strange and terrific. Cursed the ground where dead thoughts live new and oddly bodied, and evil the mind that is held by no head. Wisely did Ibn Schacabao say, that happy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain, and happy the town at night whose wizards are all ashes. For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.”
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

I sat and dozed, or stared drowzily into the darkness, and thought of the charnel worms which the mad Arab Alhazred bred in the bellies of slain camels.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake”

That is the sole line that connects “The Were-Snake” with the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft’s “The Festival” was first published in Weird Tales January 1925 issue; if Long read it there…and he might have read it in manuscript, for all we know, before that due to his close association with Lovecraft during that period…it might make sense that “The Were-Snake” with its reference to Alhazred and worms was written later, sometime during early 1925, and submitted to Wright at Weird Tales. Nothing can be said for certain, until and unless more evidence comes to light, but the sequence of events makes sense.

As to the story itself… “The Were-Snake” is very similar to “The Desert Lich” and “Death-Waters.” American tourists in the Near East; more than a touch of exoticism and rather casual racial prejudice and sexism which is sometimes played for laughs:

Our consul has red hair, and he beats his wife and he judges men by the color of their skin
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., “The Were-Snake

It’s a stilted joke, since the courageous American archaeologist sleeping in the haunted ruins is trying to bluff and bluster at what he thinks are a group of indigenous people playing a trick on himthere are some parallels in this story with Helena Blavatsky’s “A Witch’s Den” (1892), which had been published in Best Psychic Stories (1920), a book that we know Long had read and lent to Lovecraft. But whereas Blavatsky’s apparition was a group of clever natives pulling a ruse, Long’s were-snake is very real…

Robert E. Howard is not known for certain to have read this story; he apparently missed several early issues of Weird Tales. Yet it is notable that one of his early Conan stories, “The God in the Bowl,” was rejected by Farnsworth Wright, includes a man-headed serpent with hypnotic powers and deific connections—was Howard at all aware of “The Were-Snake” when he wrote “The God in the Bowl?” Did Wright reject the story because that element was similar to Long’s story? The latter seems unlikely; but it’s curious that both stories have such similar monsters. There is also a reference at the beginning to Dr. John Dee, which is notable only in that it was Long who attributed to Dee an English translation of the Necronomicon in “The Space Eaters.”

For the most part, however, it’s easy to see why Long might have wished to forget about “The Were-Snake.” The central protagonist and his fiance (?) Miss Beardsley are not terribly compelling. The descriptive material in the encounters in the dark ruins are interesting, but the final revelations lack punch, and little explanation is given as to the nature of the were-snake and her siren-like charms and habits.

The reference to Abdul Alhazred seems a little absurd in hindsight—but in context? Lovecraft hadn’t really established the cosmic scope of his Mythos yet, and the Necronomicon had appeared only in “The Festival” and “The Hound” in print. Long’s usage of Alhazred was no more than a literary in-joke at this point, and not out of keeping with the uses that Lovecraft had already made of the character. That’s how the Cthulhu Mythos started in many ways, with little throwaway references that slowly built up into something else. There were no rules, no planning, little effort to standardize and a great deal of encouragement to experiment.

In hindsight, it’s hard to see where “The Were-Snake” would have “fit” into the growing Mythos, especially after Lovecraft’s death when folks like Francis T. Laney and August Derleth were making an effort to codify the Mythos. Where would the were-snake have fit in their system? Nowadays, of course, fans might say that the were-snake was of the same species as Howard’s “God in the Bowl,” or perhaps a child of Yig, but those are both concepts that came up after Long had conceived and written his piece, and there is no evidence that either Howard or Lovecraft intended any such connection to this early work by Long.

Virtually all myth cycles, fictional or otherwise, include these “fringe-level” borrowings, which but to a minor extent enter into the main body of the cycle. The contributions of other writers did not diminish the genius-inspired originality of the Cthulhu Mythos; in its major aspects it remains entirely Lovecraftian.
—Frank Belknap Long, Jr., Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside 24

For those who like a bit of trivia, it’s worth noting that the first Mythos entity created by someone other than Lovecraft (and one of the first Mythos entities period) was indisputably female. Whatever else she might have been—god or human, witch or monster—Long’s were-snake was a woman.

Frank Belknap Long, Jr.s’ “The Were-Snake” may be read 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).

Illustration Portfolio No. 1 (1925) by The Arthur Wesley Dow Association

There’s no use in my trying to tell you what they were like, because the awful, the blasphemous horror, and the unbelievable loathsomeness and moral foetor came from simple touches quite beyond the power of words to classify. There was none of the exotic technique you see in Sidney Sime, none of the trans-Saturnian landscapes and lunar fungi that Clark Ashton Smith uses to freeze the blood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

When fans think of the artwork most associated with the literary works of Lord Dunsany, the first and last name is Sidney H. Sime, whose fantastic illustrations graced The Gods of Pegāna (1905) and most of Dunsany’s other fantasies. Sime also contributed art to illustrate works by Arthur Machen and William Hope Hodgson, and Lovecraft held him up in his fiction and letters as an artistic genius. Today, when fantastic art is so widely available online, and of such a high quality due to the proliferation in books and courses of technique and the availability of tools and materials, readers might lose sight of how rare and precious really good fantasy art was back in Lovecraft’s time…yet even in 1925, when Weird Tales was only a couple of years old and still finding its feet, Lord Dunsany’s fantasies inspired a group of women artists…and found publication.

The Arthur Wesley Dow Association was founded at the University of California, Southern Branch (now UCLA) in 1922. Materials related to this portfolio (presumably the original art or proofs) are still held at the UCLA library. This portfolio appears to have been begun as early as 1923, and was published in 1925. Compiled by Helen C. Chandler, a professor of arts at the University of California.

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In form, this is ten unbound black-and-white plates—seven plates by five artists illustrate two stories drawn from Lord Dunsany’s collection Time and the Gods (1906). They represent interpretations of Lovecraft’s work. Not copying Sime, but presenting their own interpretations, in their own medium and style.

 

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All the gods were sitting in Pegāna, and Their slave, Time, lay idle at Pegāna’s gate with nothing to destroy, when They thought of worlds, worlds large and round and gleaming, and little silver moons. Then (who knoweth when?), as the gods raised Their hands making the sign of the gods, the thoughts of the gods became worlds and silver moons. And the worlds swam by Pegāna’s gate to take their places in the sky, to ride at anchor for ever, each where the gods had bidden. And because they were round and big and gleamed all over the sky, the gods laughed and shouted and all clapped Their hands. Then upon earth the gods played out the game of the gods, the game of life and death, and on the other worlds They did a secret thing, playing a game that is hidden.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

Today, artwork like this might be classified by some as “fanart.” The term is often somewhat derogatory, regardless of the skill, imagination, or time put into the piece. The distinction between “art” and “fanart” grew up in the organized science fiction fandom of the 1930s, at the same time when lines were drawn between “fan” and “pro”—those writers and artists who were good enough to graduate from amateur efforts to actually sell their work professionally to magazines. At the time these works were made, the distinction did not exist. There were, certainly, amateur writers and artists in abundance—but the hallmark of the work was its quality, not necessarily who or why it was made.

 

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Thus the Yozis became gods, having the power of gods, and they sailed away to the earth, and came to a mountainous island in the sea. There they sat upon the rocks, sitting as the gods sit, with their right hands uplifted, and having the power of gods, only none came to worship. Thither came no ships nigh them, nor ever at evening came the prayers of men, nor smell of incense, nor screams from the sacrifice. Then said the Yozis:

“Of what avails it that we be gods if no one worship us nor give us sacrifice?”

And Ya, Ha, and Snyrg set sail in their silver galleons, and went looming down the sea to come to the shores of men.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

It is significant that the artists in this portfolio were women, because women were generally underrepresented as artists in fantasy and weird fiction at this time (and would continue to be for decades after), prominent exceptions like Margaret Brundage not withstanding. Yet the art itself is not distinctly “feminine” any more than it is “fanart.” These are labels that we as readers, trying to fix this art into a familiar framework, might hang on these pieces, but by themselves they are starkly beautiful, with the vast solid expanses of black still vivid after nearly a century, even though the cover of the portfolio has faded and some of the page-edges are soiled and torn.

 

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But as the gods slept, there came from beyond the Rim, out of the dark and unknown, three Yozis, spirits of ill, that sailed up the river of Silence in galleons with silver sails. Far away they had seen Yum and Gothum, the stars that stand sentinel over Pegāna‘s gate, blinking and falling asleep, and as they neared Pegāna they found a hush wherein the gods slept heavily. Ya, Ha, and Snyrg were these three Yozis, the lords of evil, madness, and of spite. When they crept from their galleons and stole over Pegāna‘s silent threshold it boded ill for the gods.
—Lord Dunsany, “When the Gods Slept”

In creating his own mythology, moving outside of the established gods and monsters of familiar myth and legend, Dunsany was breaking some of the rules and conventions. He is often very nondescriptive of the entities in his stories, letting the reader fill in the blanks. The Yozis in their different incarnations do not attempt to directly map to any traditional form of stock evil; they are not pitchfork-carrying devils with horns and bifurcated tails in their literary descriptions, nor do the artists attempt to render them as such. Left without much traditional guidance, each artist is forced to imagine and depict them in her own way.

 

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And Night spoke of the forest and the stirring of shadows and soft feet pattering and peering eyes, and of the fear that sits behind the trees taking to itself the shape of something crouched to spring.
—Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Free of restriction to normal conventions of what such fantastic scenes might look like, some of the artists experimented with depictions of scale and contrast. There is an exaggeration of the human form in the crouched figure staring out of the page that recalls Aubrey Beardsley.

 

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Look at the trees, how the different artists defined their bark and roots. There’s nothing wrong with the fact that each chose her own means of expression; they were not collaborating on a single narrative, but each offering their own interpretations. If Lord Dunsany wrote the myth, then these artists were each storytellers, presenting the stories in their own way.
 

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And Night spoke of the forest and the stirring of shadows and soft feet pattering and peering eyes, and of the fear that sits behind the trees taking to itself the shape of something crouched to spring.
Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Different is good. While many fans such as H. P. Lovecraft sincerely appreciated the combination of Lord Dunsany and S. H. Sime, that is still only one possible combination—other artists, working on their own, might find their own way to express what visions Dunsany’s prose gives to them, and it detracts nothing from Sime to say that some other artist might find something in their own work that lacks from his. They are only different points of view, not in competition.

 

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Once in an arbour of the gods above the fields of twilight Night wandering alone came suddenly on Morning. Then Night drew from his face his cloak of dark grey mists and said: “See, I am Night,” and they two sitting in that arbour of the gods, Night told wondrous stories of old mysterious happenings in the dark. And Morning sat and wondered, gazing into the face of Night and at his wreath of stars.
Lord Dunsany, “Night and Morning”

Michi Hashimoto is the only Japanese-American in this portfolio; she had graduated from UCLA in 1924. Her interpretation draws deliberately on both Japanese and Western aesthetics—fitting, given how extensively Dunsany himself drew on traditions of exoticism and Orientalism to lend an air of the exotic to his stories. There is some irony there, almost, in an artist capturing something of the “authentic” exotic to this scene.

 

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Compare this scene, with the hero of the Nibelunglied (a Western fantasy if there ever was one), encountering a three-headed dragon that obviously draws on depictions of Chinese dragons. This kind of correspondence and amalgamation  can work—compare with the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス)—but there is definite juxtaposition of incongruous elements in having the Western hero/knight facing an Eastern dragon in this interpretation.

 

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This atypical (per-Marvel Comics, at least!) interpretation of Thor underscores the overall theme of this portfolio: these are myths. Some old, some contemporary, but for all that just stories to be told and retold—and they aren’t set in stone. How we look at a Mythos can change based on the syntax of our lives. There is no one true canon depiction of Thor, or the Yozis, or Cthulhu.

 

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Illustration Portfolio No. 1 needs not have any particular moral or lesson. The artists of this volume were producing art, and left no particular comment on how it should be interpreted or understood. Yet by its very existence, and looking at these works, readers might do well to reflect on the nature of art and interpretation in the Mythos. Sometimes, there is no one right answer, no single truth.

There are only many different people working out their vision, in their own styles and with their own influences, and the different combination of art and text can sometimes mean more than either does separately.


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