Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes & Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro

The fact that H. P. Lovecraft worked as a ghostwriter and reviser of other’s writing is common knowledge. Most of the work that receives attention is the weird fiction which he wrote for clients, to appear under their names in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Wonder Stories, but Lovecraft’s revision services were much broader, covering everything from poetry (such as his work for David Van Bush and Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom) to travelogues, such as European Glimpses (1988) by Sonia H. Greene.

Two of these works, Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes and Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro, are both connected with Lovecraft and his long-time friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. By the late 1920s Long had set out to be a professional writer, and had published several short stories in Weird Tales, including “The Were-Snake” (1925), a book of poems, A Man from Genoa and Other Poems (1926). That book was underwritten by his aunt, Cassie Symmes, and printed by W. Paul Cook. Symmes was so impressed with the production that she hired Cook to produce a travelogue of her 1924-1927 trips to Europe, asking her nephew to provide the preface. Lovecraft was asked to correct the proofs.

Lovecraft did a little more than that. For many decades, Old World Footprints remained one of the rarest works of Lovecraftiana, but a 2021 reprint from Bold Venture Press has finally made it available to the average fan. Dave Goudsward tracks the history of Lovecraft’s involvement, including where and how Lovecraft touched up Symmes’ prose, to the extant that he basically ghost-wrote Long’s preface.

I concocted a euphemistic hash for young Long to sign—a preface to a tame travel-book by his aunt that bored him so badly he couldn’t think of anything to say! He didn’t want to turn down the request for a preface—so got me to cook up some amiable ambiguities for him.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, quoted in Old World Footprints (2021) 54

As the text of the travelogue itself is very short, the book is expanded with a biographical essay on Cassie Symmes, with focus on her involvement with all things Lovecraftian—she was, for instance, the person who gave Frank Belknap Long, Jr. a small statuette of the Hindu god Ganesa, which in turn inspired the figure of Chaugnar Faugn in Long’s novelette The Horror from the Hills (Weird Tales Jan—Feb-Mar 1931). The book also contains a collection of quotes from Lovecraft’s letters about Symmes and the book, making it a single point of reference for those who don’t own or wish to dig through multiple volumes of letters. Even for those not interested in the travelogue might yet find some interest in the light it sheds on Lovecraft & Long’s friendship.

I was asked to provide the foreword to this book, and one of the key points I made in that bears repeating here: even if you though you’d read everything Lovecraft had to offer, you almost certainly haven’t read this.

Long’s involvement with Portrait of Ambrose Bierce would be more substantial, while Lovecraft’s would be slighter. In 1927, Adolphe Danziger de Castro received some nationwide attention when an article he wrote supposedly giving some insight to how his one-time friend Ambrose Bierce had died was picked up by the Associated Press. De Castro sought to parlay this fifteen minutes of fame into an opportunity to revise and reprint some of his fiction, which was badly out of date, and he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft to do this. Lovecraft was willing to consider the revision work…and then de Castro made a further suggestion:

Now, to something else. you probably have seen the flash of publicity I have received lately with regard to Bierce. I have written the first part of a book, BIERCE AND I. It is the part relating to the west. I lost over two thousand letters of B. in the San Francisco fire. but the letters, 14 in all, he wrote me since 1900 I have and with these I am going to build the second part. Bob Davis assures me that he will get me a publisher at once. This means that I would be able to realize some money from the work. In this work, however, no revision as you suggest for the story is possible, for the reason that it my “I” that enters in the work and my style, with the exception of some expression here and there, is fairly well known. As these are purely reminiscences, even the aesthetic arrangement could not be changed. As the matter of the story is virtually settled—and it would please me if I could get it next week – what idea can you suggest about BIERCE AND I?
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 8 Dec 1927, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 346

Lovecraft did revise some of de Castro’s fiction, and did so for “The Last Test” (Weird Tales Nov 1928), “The Electric Executioner” (Weird Tales Aug 1930), and a third revision. It appears during 1928 Lovecraft had recommended that Long might also help de Castro in some way, but de Castro was fixed on Lovecraft as a potential reviser or collaborator:

However, since I wrote you I added about fifty thousand words to the Bierce book, original matter written by Bierce and bearing on certain reminiscences I note.

The title of the book will not be BIERCE AND I but simply AMBROSE BIERCE. As I appear in the book a great deal as the teller of the story I deemed the former title over-descriptive.

What pains me, I frankly confess, is that there are probably many literary blemishes of which a book of this sort ought to be absolutely free. But I have written more than 115,000 words and have grown very tired. It is equally obvious that I cannot have the work done—as correctors might prove correctioners—spoiling the personal tone for an assumed form. It is not every one, my friend, who has your sure touch and is so sympathetic to the subject under discussion.

Albert & Charles Boni have the matter under consideration (this is in confidence, of course) but there are a number of publishers quite desirous of bringing out the book
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 25 Feb 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 351

It was at this point that Frank Belknap Long re-enters the picture:

Old Danziger-de Castro is now in touch with Belknap, & that little imp has just revised his memoirs of Bierce absolutely free of charge, in return for the privilege of prefixing a signed preface! Belknap thinks it will bear him onward toward fame to be thus visibly connected with a work likely to become a standard source-authority for future Bierce biographers. […] It seems that de Castro has written a great deal of more or less solid material, besides serving the government in several important capacities—consular & otherwise. Belknap says he is 62 years old, stout, & genial.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 206

Ambrose Bierce in 1928 was much more famous than he is today, and the mystery of his disappearance—and the pop-culture trends that were already circulating regarding it; in 1932 Charles Fort’s book Wild Talents would propose the theory that someone was collecting Ambroses, which would enter the modern lore of conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, and UFO abductions. While today Mythos fans might recognize Bierce as the author of “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891), which Robert W. Chambers drew on for The King in Yellow (1895), in the 1920s Bierce occupied a position closer to that which Lovecraft himself would later occupy, recognized as a master of the weird tale with stories like “The Damned Thing” (1893) as a thematic precursor to Lovecraft’s own “The Unnameable” and “The Color Out of Space.”

So Long’s desire to attach his name to a piece of Bierce scholarship is a little more understandable in that context than it might be today. However, once de Castro got the preface and revised manuscript back, he wrote to Lovecraft again:

Now to something else…Belknap Long wrote a nice bit of preface to my Bierce book; but I’ll be this, that and t’other, if I like the book as I wrote it; although Belknap thinks it very good. There is something missing in it, something I could do if I were away from harassing conditions and disturbing elements. It has been read by three publishers and rejected on a certain expressed criticism and the adulti stulti seem not to comprehend that I know better than they what is the trouble. The book is written by the person who for more than twenty-five years was in closest touch with Ambrose Bierce with little confidences that no other human being knew or heard. Naturally it is written in the first person singular—how else could it have the personal touch? However, this makes it “reminiscent” rather than biographical, and they want a pure unadulterated biography—although not quite true, as one publisher expressed it; and this publisher actually offered a big advance royalty—what do you think of that? No wonder I am bewildered and don’t know how, where, and to whom to turn. nor have I put any great criticism of Bierce’s works in my book, but I have left out oceans of matter of most interesting personal character—not wishing to make the book too long.
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Apr 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others
 353-4

In his letters to de Castro, Lovecraft is unfailingly polite. In his letters to others, he is much more direct about the whole matter:

As for the memoirs themselves—alas! They are again set back to the raw material stage. Belknap did not take any job away from his old grandpa—he refused to consider it till old ‘Dolph stated positively that he could not have the work done by anybody on any cash basis whatsoever. But behold & lament! Though the job is done, yet it isn’t—for since the revision no less than three publishers have rejected the MS. on the ground that the style is still too crude, & the material still too ill-proportioned! I thought that Belknap must have made a rather light job of it when he said that he did that whole long book MS. in only two days—& lo! That is just about what did happen! Now old ‘Dolph is looking for a regular recasting in the slow, extensive, & painfully conscientious manner of Grandpa Nekrophilos—indeed, a suggestion from the third & latest rejecting publisher has led him to consider a radical change of plan, & an abandonment of the memoir style for a regular biographical treatise in the third person. This, of course, means a radical text-upheaval which really amounts to collaboration rather than revision. But—eheu!—though his ideas are bigger, his purse most infelicitously isn’t; so that he plaintively announces himself as ‘bewildered, & at a loss how, where, & to whom to turn’. He hems & haws & alludes delicately to the ‘almost certain’ profits of the biography if it can be properly formulated & launched—placing the likely receipts most alluringly at about $50,000.00. [Fancy!] What he is leading up to is undoubtedly a proposition for me to do the work on a speculative basis—i.e., for a certain percentage of the possible royalties—but right here is where Grandpa pauses for sombre reflection! As a piece of work—rightly done—it would be a staggering all-summer asphyxiation cutting off alike my immediately remunerative revision, & any possible original fiction I might wish to write. In exchange for this sacrifice I would have a double gamble, with two exceedingly doubtful spots—(a) whether any publisher would take the damn thing after all, & (b) whether, being published, it would really drag in enough to make a collaborator’s percentage anything more than a joke. Yes—the old gentleman will be very deliberate! Moreover—I don’t know how big a percentage a collaborator really ought to ask. And yet, at that, there’s certainly great stuff in the book; real source material that no future Bierce student (if such the coming years may hold) can afford to overlook. Belknap went wild over it—eating up every word so avidly that he didn’t see any mistakes at all until he started to go over it a second time with critical pencil in hand—& I shall be glad to get a chance to read the MS. myself. Old ‘Dolph still talks of making a stage-coach trip to Providence—& I shall certainly receive him with civility if he does. But in my opinion he’d better stick to Belknap—who is right on he ground for personal consultation, & who is willing to toil for fame alone—as his collaborator, telling him just how extensive he wants the changes, & giving him plenty of time to make a really thorough job. In recompense he ought to include the Child’s name on the title-page—”Ambrose Bierce: By Adolphe de Castro & Frank Belknap Long, Jun.” Just how much fame it would bring Belknap remains to be seen. The book is no mere controversial item—it’s a long string of general Bierce reminiscences—& now that a triple rejection has chastened him, Old ‘Dolph would probably be willing to cut down the [“Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter”] episode till it occupied a less disproportionate space in his whole oeuvre.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 5 Apr 1928, LWP 209-210

There was a bit of back and forth, and Lovecraft & Long actually met with de Castro at the latter’s apartment in New York City. However, Lovecraft was less than hopeful about the outcome:

I’m afraid the old duffer can’t or won’t pay a decent advance price, hence I doubt if I take the revision job after all; though I shall read the book fully & prepare a helpful synopsis & list of suggestions. My own interest impels me to do this—& I  have promised him such a list by next Thursday.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Apr 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.635

The next few months were trying; de Castro continued to pester Lovecraft to work on the book, and Lovecraft refused to do so for less than $150 up front—a sizable fee for a very sizable job, and less than de Castro had been paid for the stories Lovecraft had revised for him had sold for. Nevertheless, it seems like Lovecraft did send his promised list of suggestions, and Long did apparently do a light revision of the text, and eventually de Castro managed to sell it:

Old Adolphe de Castro has turned up again, & is pestering Belknap & me with dubious revision propositions. He says the Century Co. has just accepted his Bierce book, which is surely interesting if true. He claims to have just returned from a European trip.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2/9/16 Nov 1928, Essential Solitude 1.167

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929, Century Co.) was published in attractive hardcover, complete with photographic plates, a fold-out facsimile of Bierce’s “The Town Crier” articles of 1969, and a brief prologue by Frank Belknap Long (who signed himself, in James Branch Cabell’s fashion, as simply “Belknap Long.”) The extent of Long’s revision of the manuscript isn’t clear, a comparison of the table of contents for Bierce and I that de Castro had mailed to Lovecraft (LAGO 350) and the final table of contents of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce shows many of the chapters are nearly identical, so there was no major re-shuffling of the contents. Still, it appears de Castro might have taken some advice from Lovecraft:

Old De Castro’s book has been attacked quite violently by some reviewers—& not unjustly, since it is truly a slovenly & egotistical concoction which doesn’t give Bierce half his due. I have glanced through the printed copy, I see that the author took all of my advice regarding deletions, though giving me no credit therefor. Belknap’s preface opens with a misprint—Beaudlaire.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Apr 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 173

Aside from this, Lovecraft never claimed to have any part in the final text of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and in truth it’s difficult to see any part of the book he might have had a hand in. The tone throughout is from de Castro’s point of view, and one would be hard-pressed to find a word distinctive of Lovecraft’s vocabulary or philosophy, unless it be in Long’s own preface. Certainly, the book does not deal even cursorily with Bierce’s weird fiction; Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman’s 21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce (1922) is cited in the bibliography, but under the wrong title. Certainly if Lovecraft did have any direct hand in the book, he would have striven to correct that error. When Long finally saw the finished product, he was nonplussed:

First we stopped at Kirk’s, where the Child took a look at De Castro’s Bierce book with his preface in it. The result was something of a shock; for there were many grave misprints, & old De Castro had interpolated a whole section of a personal letter which Belknap wrote him in praise of the volume. Sonny intends, however, to buy the book eventually. It was a cheap trick of old De Castro’s not to give us both free copies!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 28-29 Apr 1929, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.761

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce was not the end of Lovecraft’s personal and professional relationship with de Castro, although it seems to have been the end of de Castro’s professional relationship with Long. The poor reception of the book seems to have negated any hoped-for recognition association with it might bring, and the book itself is of relatively limited value to Bierce scholars, since so much of the facts are filtered through de Castro’s own self-importance and determination to give himself what he felt was due credit—often at the expense of Bierce, and in the bibliography at the expense of Bierce’s friend the poet George Sterling, who had committed suicide in 1926. That was in exceptionally poor taste.

If it’s a failure as a work of biography, as an artifact, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce is interesting as another thread in the web of connections between two masters of the weird tale—aside from his association with de Castro (The Monk & the Hangman’s Daughter, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce), and Samuel Loveman (21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce), Lovecraft was also connected to Bierce through Clark Ashton Smith, whose mentor was George Sterling (and Sterling had actually commented on Lovecraft’s story “Dagon”). There are some more obscure connections, if you dig for them, in certain anecdotes in Lovecraft’s letters. Robert E. Howard ended up reading Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and brought it up in is letters to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.453, 2.539).

Perhaps belatedly, the affair also cemented Lovecraft’s professional standing with regard to de Castro:

Just heard from old De Castro—he thinks his Bierce book would have been better received if I had revised it! Well—if he’d been willing to pay, I’d have been willing to work!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 5 Jun 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 176

Lovecraft never would revise any full-length book for de Castro, although he did do a revision or two—cash up front.

What these two books show is that there was a lot more to Lovecraft’s career as a revisionist than just his weird fiction—and that when it came to revision, as opposed to fiction written for his own aesthetics, Lovecraft could be somewhat mercenary. Although he was always willing to help out a friend, Lovecraft couldn’t afford to take big revision jobs without the promise of pay—an attitude which would, eventually, see him get out of the revision business altogether.


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

Black Magic (1929) by Paul Morand

677. Morand, Paul (1888-1976). Black Magic. Translated from the French by Hamish Miles. Illustrated by Aaron Douglas. New York: Viking Press, 1929. vi, 218 pp. [MS/NUC 394:35]
On African Americans. Given to HPL by Henry S. Whitehead (HPL to Lillian D. Clark, 10 May 1931; LFF). ES 341
—S. T. Joshi & David E. Schultz,
in Lovecraft’s Library: A Catalogue, Fourth Revised & Enlarged Edition 117-118

Whitehead has just made me a gift of Paul Morand’s “Black Magic”, & has most thoughtfully obtained Seabrook’s “Magic Island” from the public library for my benefit.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 May 1931, Essential Solitude 1.341

When I leave in about a week I shall bear away as gifts a jar of West Indian cherry marmalade, a copy of Paul Morand’s “Black Magic”, & a copy of Wakefield’s weird collection, “Others Who Return.” [sic]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 30 May 1931, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.906

The Reverend Henry St. Clair McMillan Whitehead (1882–1934) was an Episcopal priest, one of the regulars of Weird Tales and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, and a correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, Bernard Austin Dwyer, and R. H. Barlow. Whitehead specialized in “jumbee” stories, drawing off the folklore of the U.S. Virgin Islands which he visited during the summers of 1920-1929, and which sometimes served as fodder for articles such as “Obi in the Caribbean” (1927) and “Negro Dialects of the Virgin Islands” (1932). On his southern travels to Florida in 1931, H. P. Lovecraft graciously accepted Whitehead’s hospitality, visited the Cuban enclave at Ybor City, got some sun…and took a few presents with him as he continued his travels.

Paul Morand was a Frenchman in diplomatic service; in 1925-1927 he visited the United States, including a tour of Harlem by negrophile Carl Van Vecht, who had made the nightlife of cabarets and sex shows the setting of his novel Nigger Heaven (1926). Morand traveled though the Southern U.S. and the Caribbean, including Martinique, Trinidad, Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. In 1928 Morand went to French colonial possessions in Africa, including Dakar (Senegal), French Guinea, French Sudan and Timbuktu, among other places. In his preface, he describes his journeys as: “30,000 miles. 28 Negro countries.”

The result of these travels on Morand’s imagination was Magie Noire (1928), translated into English in 1929 as Black Magic. The book is a collection of stories or vignettes, grouped together geographically into three sections: U.S.A., Antilles, and Africa. The theme is black people—race informs every story, character, and setting. The stories are, somewhat like Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895), not easy to qualify; some have distinct supernatural elements, many have reference to voodoo, with Morand drawing from William Seabrook’s book on Haitian Vodou The Magic Island (1929), and one is a long, speculative novelette that forecasts a possible black Communist future.

It is the only book on black people in Lovecraft’s library, and there are almost no references to Morand or Black Magic in his correspondence. The voodoo angle probably explains Whitehead’s interest, as he was still writing fiction in that line. Given that Whitehead had acquired The Magic Island for Lovecraft to read, and Lovecraft’s love of Charleston, South Carolina which one of the stories deals with, might explain why he gifted the book to his friend. Whether Lovecraft ever read the book, or what he thought of it, we do not know; nor is there any real indication that Black Magic substantially influenced Lovecraft’s fiction from summer of 1931 on…although we cannot rule that out completely, either.

What Black Magic represents is an opportunity to examine the context of literary racism during Lovecraft’s life. This was not pulp fiction along the lines of “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” (1932) by Donald Wandrei, “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch, “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, or even “Winged Death” (1934) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft. Morand was not writing genre fiction specifically, this was general fiction, read and reviewed by literary critics, and Morand had actually been to many of the places he talks about and seen the people there at first hand. So when we normally think of racism in the pages of Weird Tales, or by pulp writers, it is important to have that context of what someone in the wider world was reading and writing about black people, how they expressed and examined those prejudices.

To this end, what follows will be a brief synopsis of every story in the book, followed by analysis and discussion.

Congo is eighteen years old, and has been dancing for eighteen years. She is a freak of nature. But her principal gift is not really her dancing, nor her comical powers, not her exotic grace, nor the grimaces that distort her features, so rounded when her face is in repose, into flashes of geometrical tattooing. No, it is simply the instantaneous transmission of her immense vitality, the discharge of a current more violent than the electric chair’s. She has only to show herself, and everything will start moving—people, lights, furniture. […]

And Paris laughs its tired, cynical laugh, ingratiated by the primitive merriness of these lively limbs, cheered by these stone-age gambollings, its blood quickened by this organic, unquenchable radiance: can she be ignorant of God’s gift to the Negroes of His most priceless treasure—the gift of joy?
—Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), Black Magic 6, 8

“Congo” is about a young Creole dancer of that stage name in Paris. She believes she is being afflicted by voodoo, and seeks out protection. When her grandmother dies in Louisiana, she returns for the funeral—and falls victim to the doom she has felt stalking her when she plunges into the Mississippi.

The characterization is typical of Morand’s book. Black people of whatever background are largely painted as a race apart, primitive or primeval, superstition in their bones. Paris, jaded and civilized, and urbane is contrasted markedly with the rural black community she briefly returns to, though even Paris has its voodoo underworld on the Rue Fontaine. Readers might wonder at the point of the story—and there really isn’t one. Congo doesn’t have any enemies that are named; self-absorbed in living life and enjoying it, aware of an ending that comes abruptly and without any real explanation.

Ambiguous as this story is, Lovecraft might have at least been interested in the voodoo element, scant on detail as it might be. While not keen on such stories, Lovecraft had expressed his appreciation for “The Half-Pint Flask” (1927) by Dubose Heyward.

I had no hatred for their race, but these new contacts made me feel better how much the individual among them horrified me. The mere idea of their smell, the shape of their mouths, revolted me. I could not look without a shudder at those French papers where you saw white nurses tending black wounded. I was alive to the poetic tragedy of these exiles, but as soon as a Negro came near me, I wanted to see him dead. I loathed them for being so prolific. Those millions of dark skins were not mere statistics for me; they were so many vile and hideous matings—out of sight. If someone suggested their castration as the only solution of the problem, I inwardly applauded. A friend who claimed to be free from prejudices, once declared in my presence that the hatred of the Whites for the Blacks is simply a jealousy of males. I cannot describe how insufferable I thought that. (ibid. 37)

“Charleston” also takes place in France; a chance encounter with a bloody woman on the roadside leads the unnamed narrator to take her back to his house, where she tells her story. She is a white woman from Charleston, South Carolina, who in her life had developed both a terrible prejudice against black people, and a sexual fascination with black men. The feelings come to a crux one night in a French club, where a visiting African-American Jazz musician—does something. She claims at first he tried to rob her; then she says he tried to rape her. Did she actually lead him on? She will not admit it. Other visiting Americans see the affair, and bloodily murder the Jazz musician (“found at dawn with eighty-six bullets in his body; besides that, a heavy automobile had been backed over his face”), leaving a note claiming it is the work of the Ku Klux Klan. The French press is abuzz with the news for a moment—and then sends for a new Jazz musician from the Rue Fontaine.

There is a fine distinction to be made in stories which are themselves racist, and those in which a character is racist. “Congo” is racist, the prejudice is casual, pervasive, and presented as truth or fact. “Charleston” is more complicated. The American woman telling the story is unabashedly racist, and that is the point: we are getting her prejudice from her lips, and it is obvious that her bigotry is mixed up and confused with lust, upbringing, critical experiences. The French narrator is comparatively neutral, relating the events as experienced and the woman’s story without much comment. In this sense, we can compare the American woman to the unnamed narrator of Lovecraft’s “Herbert West–Reanimator,” whose description of an African-American boxer is so particularly reprehensible; a point discussed in “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon.

Yet having a racist character in a story does not necessarily make a story racist. Victor LaValle has several racist white characters in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016), but that does not make the story itself racist. Paul Morand is playing a specific role here, one which his readership would have recognized: the disaffected European, offering without comment the psychosexual complexities and barbarities of a uniquely American prejudice:

It was a purely American tragedy, acted inside provincial France. (ibid., 44)

In his letters, H. P. Lovecraft definitely had the idea that the race relations in the United States of America were peculiar, a result in part of the long history of slavery and the continued separation of races under segregation and Jim Crow. In this sense, the idea of black equality with whites was also something Lovecraft saw as a particular extension of American race relations, and that Europeans were more impartial. Lovecraft wrote to his friend James F. Morton, who was an early member of the NAACP and had written a tract against race prejudice in 1906:

The black is vastly inferior. There can be no question of this among contemporary and unsentimental biologists—eminent Europeans for whom the prejudice-problem does not exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 29 Dec 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 253

Morand’s point is a bit barbed: none of the white people are punished for the murder. The French make a hue and cry, but hypocritically do nothing to obtain justice. In their own way, it is not so much agreement with the American prejudice as apathy, but the results are the same. Given the sexual element, how poorly Morand portrays Lovecraft’s beloved Charleston, and the complete lack of any supernatural element, whether Lovecraft continued with the book beyond this point.

The Negro quarter, “Little Africa,” as it is called, begins at the eighth block. And there, in a little house of businesslike brick, shut in by a Spanish rough-cast wall with sunflowers looking over its top like sentries, there lives a white family. A stranger, at least, would take them for such, though everybody in Excelsior knows that the Blooms are black. The town register shows the letter “C” after the name of Victor Bloom—”coloured,” as opposed to the “W” to which the Whites are entitled.
—Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), Black Magic 46

“Excelsior” is a story about passing. The “one drop rule” made those Americans with any distant non-white ancestor subject to the same social and legal discrimination as anyone else. The Blooms are “nearly white,” and travel north to a resort town where no-one knows them to pass as white. At first it works fine—and then, one by one, they become darker and darker, and the social niceties afforded to them disappear. Eventually, the white people move away, leaving the resort town entirely in the hands of the Blooms and their African-American employees and customers. There is a very slight voodoo element, but the main supernatural action of the story, the inexplicable darkening of skin and biological and behavioral changes whereby the passing Blooms become stereotyped caricatures of African Americans, goes unexplained.

The horror of passing was real in the 1920s, and has been discussed in regard to “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft. This is arguably one of the most egregiously racist stories in the book; it feels like a bizarre morality play where the Blooms lose what they hoped to gain by their slight deception, and them embrace their black identity and drive out the whites by their very presence. Morand prefaced the story with: “The zebra cannot lay down his stripes. Dahomey Proverb.” and perhaps that served as inspiration…yet for all that, it isn’t a tragedy in any normal sense. The Blooms do succeed, but not on their own terms; they only embrace their black identity when given absolutely no other choice, and in doing so they forfeit most of the audience sympathies along with it as they become a caricature of greedy, grasping black people with no dignity or cultivation.

Ironically, this might be the sole story that could be argued to have had any impact on Lovecraft at all, if he read it. During his trip to Florida in 1931, Lovecraft saw a coral reef and conceived the basic idea that would, some time later, be fleshed out as “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Whether the idea of the sort of “reversion to type” in Morand’s “Excelsior” and the establishment of a racial enclave provided any inspiration to Lovecraft is unknown—Lovecraft had many other possible sources to draw from—but the possibility cannot be denied completely.

The great executive was surrounded by a hundred dark faces with white enamel eyes: colorados, claros, colorado-claros, etc. … Through all the dilution of blood, in spite of adulterated unions and inextricable adventures, they still bore a few scattered traces of their origin: the open look of the people of the plain, sociable and merry, or the defiant expression of those whose ancestors had lived in hiding amid the green tunnels of the jungle. (ibid., 64)

In “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” Doctor Lincoln Vamp is an African-American entrepreneur who has managed to, through diligence and hard work, carve out a space for African-American business in his native Syracuse, New York. As a sign of his achievements, he has been invited to the Pan-African Congress at Brussels, where he visits the Museum of the Belgian Congo at Tervueren. There, wandering alone through the exhibits that portray the life of indigenous Africans, Vamp undergoes a kind of hallucinatory return to a primeval state—and a sudden mental degeneration, emerging from the museum the next day “mad—and bellowing.”

If “Excelsior” concerned a kind of biological determinism, however unnatural, “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” is a kind of mental or spiritual determinism and devolution. Dr. Vamp and his achievements are played with bald and kind of sickening humor; the black characters in the civilized world are painted as grasping, greedy, tasteless, and petty buffoons, while the idealized indigenous Africans of Vamp’s vision are simple, happy, and untroubled except for superstitions and the threat posed by panthers. No matter how far removed Vamp is from Africa—which he has never visited—nor how firmly he has established himself in American life, the implicit lesson of the story is that black people are still close to those roots, and that it takes only a little nudge to push them back to how they were.

The implicit and explicit racism of the piece is all the worse when one considers the real horrors of the Belgian Congo during the 1920s, how horribly abused that the indigenous peoples of the Congo were and the atrocities they suffered at the hands of Leopold II. None of which is mentioned here; the white people of Europe appear to be about as blameless as in Tintin in the Congo (1931). What is galling is that in the early part of the story, Vamp recounts various injustices which African-Americans have suffered at the hands of white Americans—including lynchings and sundown towns—but the focus of the story is not on the real injustices against black people, but on the negative portrayal of black people in striving for economic success and political equality.

He had a tradition that traced his descent from African princes, but he felt himself the grandson of slaves, one of those fine “Indian pieces” that the old slavers used to value, and which they paid for in cowries, rolls of tobacco, guineas, shells—all the strange currency of the dark continent; a negro chained up ‘tween-decks; a negro branded with his owner’s initials, sold at auction, bartered for print cloth or Dutch pipes; a runaway nigger dragged along with a fork on his neck, his wrist in the pillory, with pepper on his wounds, nailed by the ear, or caught eating the sugar-cane during work and muzzled with an iron mask. … Hard dying, hard living. (ibid., 91)

“The Black Tsar” is a novelette, tracing the rise of a mulatto lawyer named Occide in Haiti during the American occupation (1915-1934) to when he sets himself up as dictator of a nominally Communist republic to his degeneration to banana republic despot and overthrow. Haitian Vodou features in the story, with Occide undergoing initiation and experiencing dreams and hallucinations, but without any actual supernatural occurrences. 

As a story, “The Black Tsar” can be compared with “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch or Eugene O’Neill’s play The Emperor Jones (1920). It is a question of black character and equality: without white people, governing themselves, how would they act? Except this thought experiment takes place in Haiti, the great horror-lesson of the Caribbean for whites, a black revolt that consumed the entire colony. The political turmoils and civil strife of Haiti formed an object lesson for Americans such as Arthur J. Burks, whose early stories in Weird Tales are set on the island of Hispaniola and pursue some similar themes of racial conflict, endemic corruption, and the inscrutable character of the people.

Morand prefaces the story with a quote from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852):

“Greasy or not greasy, they will govern you, when their time comes; and they will be just such rulers as you make them. The French noblesse chose to have the people ‘sans culottes’ and they had ‘sans culottes’ governers to their heart’s content. The people of Haiti—”

“Oh, come! … The Haitians were not Anglo-Saxons; if they had been, there would have been another story…”

Haiti had been a French colony; the American occupation allowed Morand to put the shoe on the other foot, to showcase what might have happened if the Haitians revolted against them as they had done against Napoleon. To the mix, Morand adds the post-World War I fears of communism; Soviet Russia becomes an ally to revolutionary Haiti, just as Soviet Russia would in real-life become an ally to Cuba. Yet the focus of the story is only briefly global; it is focused on Occide, his experiences and hatred of whites and of blacks, how his power quickly corrupts him, the indifference and nature of the Haitians…and then the final bloody revolution as the Americans return and overthrow the despot.

Again, there’s not a real moral lesson here on the nature of the rise of despots or the corruption of power. Occide was a bastard and a terrorist before he became president, and the characterization of his rise and fall is little more than a portrait of an ugly characters. Yet he is only ugly because Morand makes him such; Occide is as much a stereotype of everything white Europeans saw as negative in black or mixed-race people as anything else.

“Come, come,” tittered Mr. Jonas. “You’re paying your ten thousand dollars to go and see niggers, and you complain, ladies, just because they show you one before the appointed date?” (ibid., 136)

“Goodbye, New York!” is another tale of passing. Pamela Freedman Orfei is rich, almost white, and boards a cruise ship from New York to a tour of Africa. During the passage she is “outed” as colored, and by a trick she is left ashore and misses the boat. Once in Africa, she penetrates deeper into the jungles and almost immediately “goes native.”

There is no weird element to the plot. The prejudice of the American passengers is robust, the nature of Pamela’s discovery, denial, abandonment, and acceptance blistering in pace and again, to no real greater purpose. Her fate is perhaps a little better than Dr. Vamp’s in “Syracuse, or The Panther Man” because she does not literally go insane, but at the same time she rapidly throws away everything of her previous life to join a very stereotypical jungle society of which she knows absolutely nothing but still feels an immediate belonging. Morand is playing here at variations on the same theme, that of black people connecting or re-connecting with some natural state, and it is very tiresome how everyone seems to approach this as a positive thing. The white passengers don’t have to deal with the woman they had no problem with before they discovered she was non-white, and Orfei is bizarrely happy at abandoning her entire life and “belonging” with people she’s never met before and has no connection to except in the sense of race.

“That is Krou, over there: it’s still in the Ivory Coast on French territory,” said Bishara. “Further over, it’s Liberia. But the frontier’s not very well marked. Anyway, you’re home.”

That was only a phrase. A Levantine trader has no home but his trade. When once he has found his way into the colony, thanks to the precautions of an older relative, he sticks there till he has made a few pence so that he can go further up-country and open a warehouse of his own. Even so with Bishara. He had been posted at Danane with the help of an old hand, had lived there alone for two years in native fashion, eating yams and sleeping on the ground, and had struck lucky in the kola-nut trade. He in his turn was sending out shoots; and now he was going to plant out his clerk and cousin Malek, lately arrived from Lebanon. (ibid, 160)

“The People of the Shooting Stars” is set in Africa proper. A “Levantine” trader sets up a trading outpost, trying to sell overpriced goods to the locals in exchange for kola-nuts. However, the kola-nut crop starts to diminish, the goods stop selling, and a great lethargy comes over the entire village—the result of a new and bizarre religious sect, which eventually burns down everything, so that both the traders and the indigenous Africans are left with nothing.

Again, it’s a story without any sort of moral center. The indigenous Africans are treated as culturally not much different from Haitians or African-Americans, being mostly simple, childlike, occasionally treacherous. Their actions are the result of superstition, their religion inscrutable. The traders aren’t morally any superior: bigoted, greedy, determined to wring some profit out of the people they’re there solely to exploit.

A comparison can be made to Lovecraft’s depiction of indigenous Africans in “Winged Death” (1934), but arguably Lovecraft does better than Morand there, which is a damning with faint praise you don’t read very often. At least some of Lovecraft’s African characters have names and exist in the story as supporting characters rather than faceless background elements against the play of the protagonists. Both stories are very much in the colonialist mold; outsiders venturing into Africa and dealing with jungles and natives and folk-beliefs which may be a bit more real and terrible than they let on—yet none of Lovecraft’s Africans is malicious or destructive, only the white people. Morand cannot even claim that.

While the eunuchs were on the look-out for alliances and preparing public opinion, the successor to the throne had virtually been decided on. It was he who already filled the place of the deceased, imitating his speech, his gestures, his clumsy walk; at night he slept in his bed, and possessed in succession all the women of the harem, his own mother includes. (ibid., 191)

“The Goat With No Horns” is the final story in the book. An African king in the French Sudan has been raised by the “secret society of Serpent-Men” to the throne, fattened, and now the omens are right that he should die. The little drama unfolds, the ghost of the murdered king quieted, and the deceased’s corpulent body is spirited away to be consumed in a cannibalistic feast by his brothers in the secret society.

The name of the tale comes from the supposed practice of human sacrifice in Haitian Vodou, notably covered in The Magic Island (1929) and Beale Davis’ novel The Goat Without Horns (1925). As with the other stories, the black society pictured in the story is an utter caricature of vice, corruption, and duplicity. Change the black faces to Asian and it immediately becomes a Yellow Peril despot; the depiction is utterly unoriginal and closer to Orientalist fantasy than anything else. Ironically, it feels like the kind of story Farnsworth Wright might have rejected for Weird Tales for having too little plot. There’s no drama or action, just one event flowing into the other, a parade of scenes without any deeper meaning.

Which could almost do as a review for the whole book.

The one cachet of Black Magic is that it focused very strong on black characters; it isn’t a story about white people going among black people, except for “The People of the Shooting Stars,” and plenty of Europeans and Americans wouldn’t have accepted the “Levantines” as white. However, it has to be remembered that “black” as an identity is pretty much a product of the slave trade; the group identities of the people taken from their homes was lost as they and their descendants spent their lives there, and ancestral cultural lost, adulterated, or forgotten. While Morand does sort of explore the concept of different black cultures and experiences…there is at once a terrible uniformity to his black characters. They are presented as different, set apart from white people, and often in very negative ways. Even the most sympathetic characters like Congo and Pamela Freedman Orfei are still presented as fundamentally apart from white people, regressing to the superstitious and the primitive.

So yes, it is a book that focuses on black people. It is not a positive or realistic portrayal of those characters. The prejudice displayed against those characters in the book is terrible, but there is no moral judgement regarding it. The discrimination simply is. Morand presents, but does not comment, and in the end almost doesn’t matter. In pulp fiction, stereotypes are often easy and garish, but not necessarily without purpose. When comparing “Black Cunjer” (1923) by Isabel Walker vs. “Black Canaan” (1936) by Robert E. Howard for example, racism is the driver of the conflict in the stories; in Morand’s Black Magic, it is simply the existence of black people that drives conflict, with or without white characters.

If these stories seem horrible to you just from the quotes and synopses, if you wonder at the implicit and explicit racism of the person that wrote them—remember that Morand’s book was not some penny-a-word cheap entertainment churned out for a pulp magazine. Black Magic was viewed as literature, reviewed and commented on in literary circles, which spurred debate and controversy over Morand’s portrayals of black people. The artist who did the black and white plates for the book—which are undoubtedly the best part of the whole production—was Aaron Douglas, part of the Harlem Renaissance.

Black Magic was high brow, at a time when pulps were low brow. Both could be, and were racist. Race prejudice cut across delineations of class; and Morand shows they often cut across nationality as well. So when we look at the portrayal of black people in “Medusa’s Coil” or “The Call of Cthulhu”—when we think of Lovecraft in the context of his own period, the books and stories he would have read and drawn from—Black Magic is a hallmark. Lovecraft and Morand were separated in nationality, wealth, literary market…but both of them were drawing from similar views of race, expressed in their own way, and for their own purposes.

To say that Lovecraft was “a man of his time” is not an excuse for his racism. James F. Morton was a contemporary, and he opposed Lovecraft’s views on race, as discussed in “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson. Discussing Lovecraft in the context of his time is to say: these prejudices did not come from nowhere, they were part of an ongoing discussion of race and portrayal of black people in literature that both the readers and writers of that period were having. Readers today do not always catch all the nuances of that conversation, because we see only a slim part of it. So when we consider “Medusa’s Coil,” is may help to keep in mind “Excelsior” or “Goodbye, New York!”—and remember that both Lovecraft and Morand were operating within a tradition of fiction about passing, not staking out new racist literary territory. 


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

“The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.

In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress of Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England Historic Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s Press Club, Mrs. Bishop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.

In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)

In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”

Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:

There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.

Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.

Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 257-258

Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:

I just fixed a weird story for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude 1.137

Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 181

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222

For decades, much of the Lovecraft-Bishop correspondence were not available, but in 2015 the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society published The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, which includes many never-before-seen letters. In particular, we find that Zealia sent Lovecraft a synopsis around February 1928:

Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!

In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]

Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108

The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:

Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)

From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.

While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:

Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]

As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112

Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:

Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)

Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”

One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:

Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)

Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.

Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.

While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.

Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:

I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 258

“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:

By the same token, don’t for your life mention that I wrote “Yig”, “Electric Executioner”, “Horror in Museum”, &c.! One must never give away a client.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome 87

The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:

In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.

Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:

By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.132

I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.148

Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.

Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.


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