It is, unquestionably, the product of the lost dinosaur’s egg that has somehow, somewhere, mysteriously hatched itself. We believed them to be petrified in the rock, yet in some miraculous way the germ of life was not destroyed.
—Katherine Metcalf Roof, “A Million Years After” in Weird Tales November 1930
It was her only story in Weird Tales, though she wrote for other magazines; and had books to her credit, fiction and nonfiction. H. P. Lovecraft might have run across her work before, in Ghost Stories or the Argosy All-Story, though if he did he never mentioned it. Yet what brought her to Lovecraft’s attention, and the reason why he wrote about Katharine Metcalf Roof at all in his letters, is because of this tale—which earned the cover illustration in this issue—and that ties in to events that had occurred long years before, and some of the most important discoveries in the history of early paleontology.
It begins with one of H. P. Lovecraft’s first trips to New York in 1922, where he visited with his friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr:
Monday Long & I explored the American Museum of Natural History—examining it in far greater detail than did Kleiner & I a couple of weeks ago. Long appreciates science & nature more than Kleiner does—he is a marvellous kid, far above the average “amateur journalist” type.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.63-64
While innocuous, it was apparently during this trip that Long or Lovecraft conceived of a story…one that would germinate for some years without being written. Lovecraft would chide his friend:
Grandpa thought he’d write and tell you that he hath just perused Wells’ Thirty Strange Stories! Magnificent plots, but how prosaically handled when one compares them to Machen’s work! I do not think Aepyornis Island anticipates your dinosaur egg story, and advise you to write the latter. Think of the difference—the dinosaur belongs to aeons immemorially remote and unconnected with anything in human experience, whilst the museum-cellar hatching can be handled with a creepiness wholly alien to anything in wells. Your idea is far the stronger, and Grandpa will spank you if you don’t write your story like a nice boy!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 26 Jan 1924, Selected Letters 1.287
The Æpyornis maximus was a large flightless bird native to Madagascar; in “Æpyornis Island” (1895) by H. G. Wells, a fossil hunter collecting some of the eggs of the supposedly extinct animal is surprised when it hatches. Such “living fossil” stories sometimes caught the imagination, such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World (1912), and dinosaurs in a variety of settings were far from strangers in the pages of Weird Tales.
Yet dinosaur eggs were cutting edge news at the time. In the 1920s, Roy Chapman Andrews carried out the Central Asiatic Expeditions of the American Museum of Natural History, including fossil-hunting in the until-then largely inaccessible Gobi desert of Mongolia. In 1923 he discovered the first dinosaur eggs and nests, which in time were shipped back to the museum in New York…there to whet the imaginations of H. P. Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long.
Sunday we answered advertisements and hoped for the best, but Monday we decided to have some fun whilst life might last, so went to the American Museum of Natural History. Here we lingered over the illuminated bird displays […] and noted in passing the famous dinosaur eggs discovered by the museum’s Mongolian expedition. The latter were not impressive—being the eggs of a very small dinosaur, the ancestor of the later massive species.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.147
Lovecraft encouraged his friend to write the story, but Long did not, whether from lack of interest or fear of plagiarizing Wells’ plot is unknown. The idea sat, unused. In 1928, another visit is recorded:
I rose at noon & went up to Sonny’s to meet our client Mrs. Reed, who was in town Sun. & Mon. She seems quite prepossessing & intelligent. After her departure Sonny & I went to the Nat. Hist. Museum, where we both bought 25¢ dinosaur paperweights.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 May 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 676
Perhaps this visit encouraged Lovecraft to think of writing the story himself. In 1928 he recorded in his Commonplace Book, where he jotted down many story ideas: “What hatches from primordial egg.” (36)
Yet Lovecraft & Long did not write the story. Ultimately, Katharine Metcalf Roof did.
This vexed Lovecraft to no end.
The dinosaur’s egg story was simply a minus quantity—but it made me curse, because I thought of that same plot just eight years ago (before any real dinosaurs’ eggs were discovered) & urged kid Belknap to develop it in connexion with his beloved American Museum, within walking distance of which he’s lived all his young life. I went so far as to make inquiries of a sub-curator as to whether dinosaurs probably laid real eggs, or whether they were semi-viviparous like some other reptilia. On being told that they were probably truly oviparous, I renewed my urging that Belknap write the tale, but just about that time he read Wells’ “Æpyornis Island”, & thought that any prehistoric-egg story would just constitute a plagiarism. I told him that such an idea was nonsense—& just then the news came of the finding of the first actual dinosaur eggs by an expedition from Belknap’s own pet museum! Afterward I thought of writing the tale myself, though I always shelved the idea in favour of others. And now comes the miserable hash—so poor that nothing but its idea could possibly have won it first place & cover-design. If only Belknap or I had gone ahead & written a real story on the theme! Heaven knows—I may yet, for the idea is none the less mine because of this independent use—or abuse—of it. But if I do use the primordial egg idea, I may introduce variants. Perhaps it won’t bring forth a dinosaur at all, but instead, a hellish half-man of the pre-human Tsathogguan period!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 245-246
But what makes me maddest about this issue, damn it, is the dinosaur’s egg story given first place and cover design. Rotten—cheap—puerile—yet winning prime distinction because of the subject matter. Now didn’t Grandpa tell a bright young man just eight years ago this month to write a story like that? Didn’t Grandpa go and ask at the American Museum about dinosaur eggs (then known only hypothetically) to see whether they were hard or soft, and didn’t he tell flaming youth to write a nightmare of a yarn about what lumbered about in the museum basement at night? And then didn’t a timid youth go and refuse to do it just because he’d read H. G. Wells’ Æpyornis Island? Fie, Sir! Somebody else wasn’t so afraid of the subject—and now a wretched mess of hash, just on the strength of its theme, gets the place of honour that Young Genoa might have had! Now, Sir, let this teach you not to be so scareful about general similarities in future! You ought to know that the style is the thing, and that subject-matter is relatively immaterial, It’s the development which makes a tale one’s own or not one’s own. Why, damn it, boy, I’ve half a mind to write an egg story myself right now—though I fancy my primal ovoid would hatch out something infinitely more palaeogean and unrecognisable than the relatively commonplace dinosaur.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 17 Oct 1930, Selected Letters 3.186-187
Nor was Lovecraft entirely alone in this opinion of Roof’s tale:
The “dinosaur egg” was truly rotten;—and I don’t blame you for cursing. I, too, would go ahead and use the idea, which could certainly be developed to great advantage by a good writer.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c.24-30 Oct 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 255
Was all of this opprobrium appropriate? Did Roof deserve the ruing of Lovecraft & co.? It is hardly unusual for two writers to run across the same basic idea; Lovecraft would run into a similar situation with the revision tale “Winged Death” (1934).
There is some fairness to the criticism. Roof’s story is told with a certain disarming prosaic quality; the thieves speak like characters that wandered in from Black Mask or some other hardboiled pulp, the Irish-American moonshiners have a certain rusticity and more than a touch of ethnic stereotype to them. The story is not at all long, and the mystery is scarcely that, for even though Roof refrains from calling it a dinosaur until near the end, there seems little else that the giant reptile could be—and even if there was, the cover is a bit of a dead giveaway. The entire mechanism by which the egg managed to hatch is left unexplained; the critter remains undiscovered and grows to prodigious size within months. It’s final death by a chance bullet—and its remains destroyed by another chance—are almost deus ex machina. Even the title is a bit of a misnomer—although in this case, Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright often changed titles on authors and might have been responsible for that.
If you compare “A Million Years After” with “The Dunwich Horror”—another story which features a large, dangerous, and exotic entity encountering a rural community—some of the reasons the story fails to resonate become apparent. There’s little sense of horror conveyed by the dinosaur, for all that the rural folks are scare of it; the description is at once both too much and insufficient. We never get a clear idea of what species of dinosaur it even is: the creature is reptilian and dwells in a swamp; has a huge body, a snake-like neck with a small head, claws on its feat, spotted skin instead of scales, and…most oddly…runs on its hind legs! While the cover depicts a sauropod, especially the early depictions of such creatures, the combination of features doesn’t quite line up.
The best that could be said about the story is that the bones of a good idea are there. The idea of a living dinosaur of titanic size, extinct for millions of years, has serious legs…as was proved in the film The Lost World (1925), and would be proved again by King Kong (1933), inaugurating a number of monster movies and creature features. Lovecraft himself saw both films, and was impressed by the stop-motion animation that brought the dinosaurs and giant ape to life:
I shall, I think, see “The Lost World” two weeks hence, for it is coming to the Strand at fairly popular prices. This palaeontological phantasy charmed me as a story some fifteen or more years ago, & I have wanted to see it ever since it was presented as a cinema. What a writer Doyle was before he went to seed as a dupe of spirit-mediums! Lost worlds have always been a favourite theme of mine, & I shall treat them more than once before I lay down my fictional pen for ever. The novelette I have mapped out, & which will probably be the next thing I shall write, deals largely with strange vestiges of a past primordial & horrible beyond expression. To me there is no one subject in literature so fascinating as chronological disarrangement—the conquest of time & Nature, & the momentary bringing together of two ages infinities apart.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 23 Sep 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.410
Yes—I shall see “The Lost World” this week, & know I shall enjoy it. Those of our gang who saw it are still marvelling over the impressive cleverness of the mechanical effects.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 4 Oct 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.436
I may do likewise with “King Kong” if its prehistoric life scenes are as good as those in “The Lost World”—which I say in 1925.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 134
Since last writing you I have seen “King Kong” (good mechanical effects) & “Madchen in Uniform.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 Jul 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea, &c. 141
“A Million Years After” has never been reprinted, except in facsimile reprints of Weird Tales. The story’s author Katharine Metcalf Roof remains mostly unknown today, and there are no collections of her pulp fiction. It might well be claimed that she had little impact on weird fiction, and is basically forgotten.
Except…in early 1931, only a couple months after “A Millions Years After” came out, H. P. Lovecraft did begin to write a story that involved a strange survival from hundreds of millions of years in the past, that was awakened by a group of scientists after a long hibernation. There was no egg, and it wasn’t a dinosaur, but as he said to Clark Ashton Smith, it was an utterly alien form of life…
The story was At the Mountains of Madness.
While “A Million Years After” surely isn’t the only inspiration for the story, the timing is such that maybe—just maybe—it was Roof’s handling of the idea of the ancient survival that gave Lovecraft the impetus to put his ideas on paper.
“A Million Years After” (1930) by Katharine Metcalf Roof can be read for free online here.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).