Hazel Heald’s story in the current W.T. is very good.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 7 Mar 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 538
“Winged Death” is pretty much a ghost-written Ech-Pi-El-ism. All that honest Mrs. Heald had to start with was a cloudy idea about somebody killing somebody with bugs. Then she got a medical friend to shed some light on poisonous African insects, & decided to give the tale an African cast. That was all I had to go on. The plot—with the idea of transferred personality & the returning & ceiling-writing death-envoy—is entirely my own. But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 544
“Winged Death” was nothing to run a temperature over, though Belknap has taken an unaccountable fancy to it. My share in it is something like 90 to 95%.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Apr 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 129
Once again, H. P. Lovecraft takes a basic idea from a revision client and works it into his own very weird plot (more or less, there are some distinct parallels with another revision, “The Last Test”). For those interested in Hazel Heald’s contribution to this story, the question lies in what Lovecraft accounts for “5-10%”; no comment survives from Heald herself to shed light any light on the matter. In this case, that appears primarily to be the use of poisonous insects and an African setting—rare enough territory for Lovecraft, whose work very seldom went in that direction.
In 1934, Africa was still largely under the control of European powers. The Great War had seen a re-shuffling of African colonial possessions, but home rule by the indigenous peoples was rare, with only Ethiopia and Liberia free of European control—and Italy under Benito Mussolini would invade Ethiopia in 1935, beginning the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (and arguably part of the larger conflict that became World war II).
In the pulps, even in Weird Tales, Africa was still portrayed as the Dark Continent, with undiscovered marvels and horrors, black magic and primitive tribal societies far from white European rule that practiced body modification, cannibalism, and whatever else. The language and portrayal of native Africans were almost universally crude and prejudiced. H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs led the way with their Allan Quartermain and Tarzan novels; Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane tromps through the jungles and deserts of the continent before the Scramble for Africa; Donald Wandrei’s “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” (Weird Tales Feb 1932) and Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933) are set in contemporary Africa, but might easily have been written fifteen years earlier or later, as far as the pulps were concerned.
Lovecraft’s literary visits to Africa were few. “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921) touches on 18th-century British exploration of the Congo region, where Sir Wade Jermyn runs across a very Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque hidden city; “The Picture in the House” (1921) includes as a vital detail an engraving by the de Bry brothers about a cannibal butcher shop in the 16th century book Regnum Congo. In 1924, Lovecraft ghost-wrote “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” for the magician Harry Houdini, supposedly based on an adventure during the latter’s tour of Egypt. Meditations on the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which Lovecraft believed were left by a lost white civilization, formed the basis for the poem “The Outpost” (1930) and the African link in “Medusa’s Coil” (1939). There are other, minor references scattered throughout some of his stories, but Africa as a setting and Africans as characters rarely appear in Lovecraft’s fiction.
So “Winged Death” stands out as one of Lovecraft’s few attempts to actually capture Africa, particularly contemporary Africa, as a setting. Lovecraft chose South Africa, and did at least basic research as far as names and geography. The town of “M’gonga” is invented, and the description represents the old Colonial attitudes, warts and all:
When I saw myself losing ground in Mombasa, I applied for my present situation in the interior—at M’gonga, only fifty miles from the Uganda line. It is a cotton and ivory trading-post, with only eight white men besides myself. A beastly hole, almost on the equator, and full of every sort of fever known to mankind. Poisonous snakes and insects everywhere, and niggers with diseases nobody ever heard of outside medical college.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death”
The “N-word” is used a grand total of three times in this story, which is less than in “Medusa’s Coil” or “The Rats in the Walls” (due solely to the name of the cat), and in keeping with Lovecraft’s style only ever as part of an account by a white character displaying their prejudice; the more neutral term “black” is used throughout when referring to the indigenous African characters. Arguably, this might be called restraint on Lovecraft’s part—he could certainly have gotten away with worse—but that’s a bit damning with faint praise, considering there was no need to use the word at all.
More interesting is the protagonist’s use of the name Galla, which is a racial slur for the Otomo people in Ethiopia, far from Uganda and South Africa where the story is set. Whether this was due to an error on Lovecraft’s part (possibly misreading antiquated sources as research), or a deliberate allusion to the “Gullah” people of Georgia and South Carolina whom Lovecraft discussed in a 1933 letter to R. H. Barlow (O Fortunate Floridian 88), is not clear. Intent, in cases like this, is impossible to tell.
The black supporting characters, notably the infected crocodile-hunter Mevana and the fly-victims Batta and Gamba, play their parts in this story but get little in the way of character development. This is nothing atypical of either Lovecraft or comparable African fiction; the focus is on the criminal mad scientist and the weird goings-on of the tale. The best that can be said is they are not portrayed in a notably negative way, aside from a touch of superstition.
Notable in the story is its sole connection to the Mythos, with an allusion to “The Outpost” (where “The Fishers from Outside” make their first appearance) and thus a kind of tie to “Medusa’s Coil”:
In one spot we came upon a trace of Cyclopean ruins which made even the Gallas run past in a wide circle. They say these megaliths are older than man, and that they used to be a haunt or outpost of “The Fishers from Outside”—whatever that means—and of the evil gods Tsadogwa and Clulu. To this day they are said to have a malign influence, and to be connected somehow with the devil-flies.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death”
Not a lot of effort has been made by subsequent Mythos authors to tie together “Clulu” or “Winged Death” and “Marse Clooloo” of “Medusa’s Coil”; and probably for obvious reasons, although Lin Carter made some use of “The Fishers from Outside.” Still, it’s worth noting that Lovecraft himself was apparently not against the idea of an African recension of the Mythos. There is a certain irony in the final statement of Thomas Slaunewaite, who had ridiculed the native beliefs throughout the story, in admitting at the end “THE BLACKS WERE RIGHT.”
For the average reader at the time, however, “Winged Death” would likely have been taken as no more than another tale of African black magic, in the vein of Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo” (1907, reprinted in Weird Tales Nov 1925) or Henry S. Whitehead’s “The Lips” (Weird Tales Sep 1929). At least one fan noted that it was essentially an inverse detective tale:
Bernard J. Kenton, of Cleveland, writes: “How can any discriminating reader find merit in other fantasy magazines when Weird Tales adds a new Poe to its columns every month or so? Of the recent writers, Hazel Heald strikes my fancy most, for whenever did anything so strikingly horrible as ‘The Horror in the Museum’ appear in print? Even Lovecraft—as powerful and artistic as he is with macabre suggestiveness—could hardly, I suspect, have surpassed the grotesque scene in which the other-dimensional shambler leaps out upon the hero. ‘Winged Death’ (Heald) makes life a living joy for the amateur criminologist. It is my prediction (verified at least in fiction such as ‘Winged Death’ and ‘The Solitary Hunters’) that the man of exceptional intellect will turn to crime when legitimate channels of amassing wealth are unnavigable; compared to them, Al Capone will look like a kid stealing milk bottles.
—”The Eyrie” in Weird Tales May 1934
All of the language and most of the plot were supplied by Lovecraft rather than Heald; it is possible that her medical friend provided some of the technical data on poisonous African flies, though it is equally possible that Lovecraft dug this up himself through research. Once the story was written, probably in the summer of 1932, Hazel Heald then tried to sell it—and, interestingly enough, did not go straight for Weird Tales.
Something odd befell a client of mine the other day—involving a story-element which I had intended & introduced under the impression that it was strictly original to me. The tale was sent to Handsome Harry [Harry Bates, editor of Strange Tales], & he rejected it on the ground that the element in question (the act of an insect dipping itself in ink & writing on a white surface with its own body) formed the crux of another tale which he had just accepted. Hell’s bells—& I thought I’d hit on an idea of absolute novelty & uniqueness! Now I’m hoping that my client will land with Wright before the S.T. item appears, for otherwise there will be a suspicion of plagiarism from the latter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Aug 1932, Essential Solitude 2.497
Strange Tales of Terror and Mystery was essentially a clone of Weird Tales, but it paid better (2 cents per word on acceptance for ST, vs. 0.5 cent per word on publication for WT), and it successfully poached several authors from Weird Tales during its short run, including Robert E. Howard and Henry S. Whitehead. However, it only ran seven issues between 1931 and 1933; the story with the insect-writing was never published in its pages. No doubt Lovecraft advised Heald to try the story on S.T. first, and only after it was rejected to submit it to Wright, who apparently held onto it for some time before it was finally published in 1934.
The story remained fairly obscure; August Derleth reprinted it as one of Lovecraft’s revisions in Marginalia (1944), but it was not reprinted again until bundled with the rest of the revisions and collaborations in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions in the 1970s, from where it began to be reprinted more frequently. Regrettably, no comment survives from Hazel Heald of what Lovecraft made of her plot-germ.
“Winged Death” may 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).