“The Last Horror” (1927) by Eli Colter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Collected Essays 5.225

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“The Green Meadow” (1927) by Winifred Virginia Jackson & H. P. Lovecraft and “The Unknown” (1916) by Elizabeth Berkeley


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 date, which I think I once shewed you. That earlier dream was exceptionally singular in that I had one exactly like it myself—save that mine did not extend so far. It was only when I had related my dream that Miss J. related the similar & more fully developed one. The opening paragraph of “The Green Meadow” was written for my own dream, but after hearing the other, I incorporated it into the tale which I developed therefrom.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 May 1920,
Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 190

In 1918, she was Winifred Virginia Jordan. Blonde, blue-eyed, working as a librarian in Boston, an amateur journalist who corresponded with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and married to Horace Jordan, who is sometimes described as African-American, though his birth certificate and draft card list him as white. Her marriage would shortly end in divorce, and her relationship with Lovecraft would lead to their first collaboration: “The Green Meadow.”

The story of this collaboration begins, very likely, near the end of World War I. Lovecraft, having been passed over for the draft and unable to contribute to the war effort, threw himself into amateur affairs. His mother Susan Lovecraft suffered a nervous breakdown in the winter of 1918, and was removed to the sanitarium of Butler Hospital on 13 March 1919, where she would die two years later. H. P. Lovecraft would write of the story:

My next job was more mechanical. A singular dream had led me to start a nameless story about a terrible forest, a sinister beach, and a blue, ominous sea. After writing one paragraph I was stalled, but happened to send it to Mrs. Jordan. Fancy my surprise when the poetess replied that she had had a precisely similar dream, which, however, went further. In her dream a piece of the shore had broken off, carrying her out into the sea. A green meadow had loomed up n the left hand side, and horrible entities seemed to be hiding among the trees of the awful forest behind her. The piece of earth on which she was drifting was slowly crumbling away, yet this form of death seemed preferable to that which the forest things would have inflicted. And then she heard the sound of a distant waterfall and noted a kind of singing in the green meadow—at which she awaked. It must have been quite some dream, for she drew a map of it and suggested that I write a story around it. After a little consideration I decided that this dream made my own proposed story a back number, so I abandoned my plan and used my original opening paragraph in the new story. Just as I was speculating how I should infuse a little life and drama into the rather vague fragment, my mother broke down, and I partially broke down as a result of the shock. For two months I did nothing—in fact, I can hardly remember what I even thought during those two months—I know I managed to perform some imperative amateur work mechanically and half-consciously, including a critical report or two. When I emerged, I decided to add piquancy to the tale by having it descend from the sky in an aerolite—as Galba knows, for I sent the thing to him. I according prepared an introduction in very prosaic newspaper style, adding the tale itself in a hectic Poe-like vein—having it supposed to be the narrative of an ancient Greek philosopher who had escaped from the earth and landed on some other planet—but who found reason to regret his rashness. As it turned out, it is practically my own work all through, but on account of the Jordanian dream-skeleton I felt obliged to concede collaboration, so labelled it “By Elizabeth Neville Berkeley and Lewis, Theobald, Jun.” I sent it to Cook, who will soon print it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 82-83

The GALLOMO was a circular of Alfred GAlpin, H. P. LOvecraft, and James F. MOrton. “Cook” is W. Paul Cook, an amateur printer with which Lovecraft was friendly and who admired his work, he would eventually publish “The Green Meadow” in his amateur journal The Vagrant (Spring 1927). This account puts the letter exchange as probably November or December 1918, with Lovecraft finishing the tale a few months after his mother entered the hospital, in late May or June 1919.

Sometimes between 1919 and 1920, Winifred would divorce her husband and return to her maiden name of Jackson. The two would go on to write one more story together, “The Crawling Chaos”, and then their association would apparently end sometime around late 1921. Lovecraft’s future wife Sonia H. Greene, whom he met shortly after the death of Susan Lovecraft at an amateur journalist convention in Boston, would later claim in a 1967 interview that: “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.”

While Lovecraft had great respect for Winifred as a poet, he was more critical of her work as writer:

In prose technique she fails, hence can utilise story ideas only in collaboration with some technician. These ideas are generally fantastic and terrible in the extreme, and so curiously like my own conceptions that I can develop and express them—in some cases build upon them—with so little difference that the result shows no sign of dual authorship. Such tales are published under the pseudonyms “Elizabeth Berkely” and “Lewis Theobald Jun.” The Green Meadow is the earlier of the two tales enclosed, and has a curious history. It began with me—the seacoast and forest scene being an actual dream of my own, around which I wrote the first paragraph of the story proper as an isolated bit on which to build a later narrative. The paragraph was a mere impression, or a bit of colouring. Later, in the course of a discussion on imaginative writing, I showed it to Miss Jackson, who was amazed to find that it corresponded exactly to a dream of her own—a dream which had extended much farther than mine. Upon her relating this dream, and furnishing a map of its supposed scene, I decided to abandon the plan for an original story and develop the Jacksonian outline—which I did, supplying the quasi-realistic aerolite introduction from my own imagination. W. P. Cook will eventually print The Green Meadow, but Heaven only knows when….
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 4 Jun 1921, Selected Letters 1.136

This would be the first map associated with Lovecraft’s works. Unfortunately, both the map and the letter from Winifred V. Jackson do not appear to survive, for reasons Lovecraft would explain in a subsequent letter:

In the case of “The Green Meadow” I related to her a dream of mine, and she claimed to have had exactly the same dream, with a subsequent development which mine lacked. this was certainly her honest belief, yet I could swear that she had no such dream till she had seen my account. Then, doubtless, she did have the dream in its amplified form; automatically putting it backward in time when later thinking of it and repeating it. I will send the epistolary extract to [James F. Morton], who seems most interested in the tale. He can return it either directly to me, or to me via Appleton. And by the way—don’t mention to W.V. J. that I sent the thing. She has a fad for destruction, and wishes all her epistles burnt without exhibition, though they are in truth far less slanderous than the presumably preserved GALLOMO. I usually comply with the wish, though in this case had to save this one sheet for the sake of the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 109

A few of Lovecraft’s letters to Winifred V. Jackson survive, although none mention “The Green Meadow.” Given Lovecraft’s forthcoming and consistent accounts, there is little doubt that events likely happened as he said; the story built up from two dream-fragments, one by Lovecraft and one by Winifred, almost certainly rewritten in his own words, and framed in the way given.

However, there is one thing that Lovecraft did not tell all of his correspondents.

“Elizabeth Neville Berkeley” was Lovecraft’s private nickname for Winifred Virginia Jackson, and he addressed at least one letter to her in this way. Among “Elizabeth Berkeley’s” publications was a poem that ran in the October 1916 issue of Lovecraft’s own amateur journal, The Conservative:


A seething sky—
A mottled moon—
Waves surging high—
Storm’s raving rune;

Wild clouds a-reel—
Wild winds a-shout—
Black vapours steal
In ghastly rout.

Thro’ rift is shot
The moon’s wan grace—
But God! That blot
Upon its face!

Lovecraft in “The Department of Amateur Criticism” for The United Amateur (Mar 1917) would discuss this poem:

Another bit of sinister psychology in verse is “The Unknown”, by Elizabeth Berkeley. Mrs. Barkeley’s style is less restrained than that of Mrs. Jordan, and presents a picture of stark, meaningless horror, the like of which is not often seen in the amateur press. It is difficult to pass upon the actual merit of so peculiar a production, but we will venture the opinion that the use of italics, or heavy-faced type, is not desirable. The author should be able to bring out all needed emphasis by words, not priner’s devices. (Collected Essays 1.140)

On the surface, this appears to be a continuation of the hoax that “Elizabeth Berkeley” and Winifred Virginia Jordan were separate writers. However, he gave the game away later:

It is true that I once used the pseudonym of “Elizabeth Berkeley” in conjunction with its more rightful owner W. V. J.—in 1916 the name covered certain verses by both authors, in an effort to mystify the public by having widely dissimilar work from the same nominal hand. But that is past history, and today Elizabeth ain’t me at all […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to the GALLOMO, 12 Sep 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 108

“The Unknown,” it turns out, was not the work of Winifred at all, but of Lovecraft operating under a female pseudonym—a first for himself. The double-joke, then is that in his review Lovecraft is gently chiding himself for the habit of using italics for the culminating revelation, a tactic that he would later go on to employ to great effect in his fiction. An especially amusing irony, considering the confusion raised by Sally Theobald.

Chronologically speaking, “The Green Meadow” was the first of Lovecraft’s collaborations with a woman—and that is important, regardless of how much of Winifred’s prose made it into the final product, or that it is a relatively minor piece with no connection to the wider Mythos. Works like this were stepping stones to what would one day become the Lovecraft Mythos—a precursor to the tales of the Dreamlands, to the way of writing stories as found accounts or documents, of taking inspiration from his dreams as the basis of narratives.

Too, a hundred years after it was written, “The Green Meadow” affirms the role of women in Lovecraftian fiction:

We were there from the start.
—Ann K. Schwader, “Reclaiming the Tradition” in Strange Stars & Alien Shadows

“The Green Meadow” may be read for free here.

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