“I Hate Queers” (1936) by R. H. Barlow

Meanwhile let me wish you all success with the realistic novel or character study—”No Right to Pity”. Material which ‘must be written out of one’s system’ has a very excellent chance of being genuine art—no less so when it comes hard than when it comes easy. And semeblance to a ‘chronicle of actuality’ is not to be deplored unless all dramatic modulation & implied interpretation be absent. Don’t hurry with the work—but let it unfold itself at whatever rate makes for maximum effectiveness. A subjective or quasi-autobiographical novel is often a stepping-stone to work of wider scope. Certainly, many books of the kind have received the highest honours in recent years.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 Jul 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 353

By early Summer 1936, Robert Hayward Barlow’s focus had turned to prose, poetry, and publication—the amateur journals The Dragon-Fly that Barlow managed to print using the press in the small shack (which Lovecraft had helped with during his last visit) were well-received by many. Barlow’s original fiction efforts ranged from fantasies like the “Annals of the Jinns” to post-apocalyptic vignettes like “The Root-Gatherers.” They showed promise, and Lovecraft was keen to encourage his young friend’s literary efforts.

Yet all was not quite well with R. H. Barlow’s home life.

Col. Everett D. Barlow suffered from what today is called post-traumatic stress disorder. From the hints and suggestions in R. H. Barlow and Lovecraft’s letters, it appears that the colonel was irascible, with periods of depression. Retired from the army and spending most of his time with his wife and youngest son at their homestead in DeLand, Florida, the old man was probably difficult to escape, for both R. H. Barlow and his mother, Bernice. The strain in the marriage would eventually lead to separation and divorce, but for Bobby Barlow, there were few opportunities to escape…

…which is what, essentially, R. H. Barlow’s sudden trip to Providence, Rhode Island to visit Lovecraft was.

It isn’t clear from R. H. Barlow’s autobiographical writing as to when exactly he came to realize he was gay, but there is evidence that around 1936 he was grappling with issues of sexuality and sexual identity. While it isn’t clear if he ever broached these matters with Lovecraft directly, there are hints elsewhere:

Don’t allow yourself to be influenced in any way by Cities of the Plain. This remarkable study in sexual perversion is sui generis.

August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 8 Jul 1936, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Cities of the Plain was the 1927 translation of Marcel Proust’s Sodome et Gomorrhe (1921/1922), a novel which deals with homosexuality and jealousy. By itself, this isn’t necessarily telling; Derleth was notably relatively open on reading about and discussion of sexuality (there are claims that he was bisexual, see Derleth: Hawk…and Dove (1997) by Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky), and perhaps Barlow felt more comfortable bringing up the book with Derleth than Lovecraft. Yet it could be a sign of Barlow’s growing interest and awareness of gay issues, especially as related to himself.

R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft in Providence from 28 July to 1 September 1936, Since they were seeing each other every day, there was no need to write letters, so the surviving accounts of the trip come from Lovecraft’s letters to his other correspondents. One thread from such an exchange with Derleth stands out:

Speaking of impromptus—enclosed are a triad of modernistic character sketches which Barlow wrote the other day without any effort or premeditation whatsoever. He pretends to despise them, but I rather think he’d like to see them in one of the little magazines which you so kindly listed for Pabody. What do you think of them? Would you encourage R H B to revise & submit them, & to pursue further endeavours along the same line? He could grind out this stuff endlessly if there were any demand for it. It seems rather in the Story line.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 22 Aug 1936, Essential Solitude 2.746

I read Barlow’s stuff with a good deal of interest, but must regretfully report that while it has the promise it is as yet pretty unformed, and not likely to see publication. Also, it is extremely difficult to read, owing to the fact that RHB is not up on paragraphing, etc. Structurally, the pieces are pretty bad. I Hate Queers has the most promise, but before the really chief characters are introduced, we get 4 pages of tripe about people who do not concern the leads at all. Nobody would take a story like that, though the best bet for Barlow’s emergence into little magazine print would be Manuscrupt, 17 West Washington, Athenos, Ohio. I have made a few marks here and there in one or two of the stories, though I did not contribute the usual amount of marginal notes owing to close typing. […] The use of long-winded, platitudinous expressions annoys, but despite all this I should think there is hope that RHB may make something out of such material as this. Let him drop at once any air of sophistication he may have. Affectations may serve a purpose to one’s self, but not in print. […]

No, RHB’s tales are far from the Story line: Story’s are crisp and clear, Barlow’s are jumbled. I Hate Queers might be revised to some good end, but much of it would have to be cut, and some staple point-of-view maintained throughout. He shifts point-of-view constantly, which is very confusing and not good creation. Frankly, the stuff shows sloppy writing: I can easily believe that he just dashed it off.

August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 Aug 1936, Essential Solitude 2.747, 748

Barlow appreciated your criticisms immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wnts to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him—but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—“The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion. However—it’s just as well to let the kid work the realism out of his system. At the moment he seems to think that the daily lives & amusements of cheap and twisted characters form the worthiest field for his genius. Plainness in style will develop with maturity.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.748-749

This is the first and last mention of R. H. Barlow’s “I Hate Queers”—a piece that is not known to survive and has never been published. Most likely, like much juvenalia it ended up in the ash bucket, never to see the light of day. Yet it is impossible to read that title, and the surrounding comments on the work, without delving into some speculation.

The suggestion of autobiographical elements and the need to write something out of his system recalls Barlow’s later, very much explicit “Autobiography,” which was written as an extension of the psychoanalytic therapy he underwent in his twenties. One can easily imagine a literate young man attempting a quasi-autobiographical story; Robert E. Howard had done much the same thing with Post Oaks & Sand Roughs, and Arthur Machen with The Hill of Dreams, so Barlow was in good company.

The title itself is plainly homophobic, yet Barlow himself was homosexual, even if he hadn’t had his first experience with another man yet. Barlow’s “Autobiography” opens in 1938 at age 18 as he roomed with the Beck family in California, with his attraction to the male form already fully developed, at least if such passages as this are any to go by:

I could not decide which if the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. he had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, drssed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage.

R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” (1944) in O Fortunate Floridian 410

Keep in mind that this was Barlow in 1944 looking back at himself in 1938, so he could have been impressing his then-current comfort level with his sexuality on his past self—but if it is accurate to his teenage feelings, this may suggest that Barlow had passed through any phase of doubt or confusion before this point—and perhaps he was still in that period of self-discovery in 1936 when he dashed off this short story.

This is important because the title “I Hate Queers” is very provocative, designed to establish and evoke an emotional response from the reader. After all, in the very homophobic 1930s, who would publicly disagree? Who would stand up and say they don’t hate queers? This suggests that the expressed prejudice of the title might be performative: the closeted gay character who emphasizes their homophobia to deflect suspicion about their own sexuality…or, perhaps, a heterosexual character who is preoccupied with being mistaken for gay because they know what discrimination that will bring.

It is fun to speculate; certainly Barlow would not have been able to be open about his burgeoning sexuality with his family, and perhaps not even with his few friends like Lovecraft and Derleth. Even discussing Proust or showing them “I Hate Queers” might have represented a risk, albeit a considered one, with any hint of personal interest disguised as literary interest or effort…and there was reason for Barlow to be concerned. Derleth was upfront about it:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.

August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

“I Hate Queers” stands out in Lovecraft’s correspondence as one of those fascinating possibilities which have been lost to time. We’ll never really know what the story was, unless an archive of Barlow’s teenage stories shows up at some point. It was a different world then, for LGBTQ+ folks, and it took decades of hard work and legislation to begin to win them recognition and equal rights with heterosexuals…rights and recognition which, sadly, have continually faced opponents dedicated to restrict, redefine, and rescind them. To turn back the clock to when gay men like R. H. Barlow struggled to express themselves even to their closest friends and relatives for fear of imprisonment and fines, censorship and blacklisting; and faced blackmail and violence simply for appearing to be different.

Barlow’s title is expressive of an age and attitude I had hoped was dead and buried, but there are still bigots today who would say it proudly…and that, perhaps, is a more subtle horror than the realism which Barlow had tried to express. For it is still as real today as it was in that earlier century.

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

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“The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft

 For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)

From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”

A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.

Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:

Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748

Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:

Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californianshows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213

As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:

That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.

“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.

Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190

As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Dead mentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:

Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411

This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:

I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)

It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:

All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432

This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.

Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:

Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.

It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.

Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:

The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.

“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft 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).

“Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch

Let me add that I got a comparable kick out of “Mother of Serpents”—whose Haitian atmosphere is convincing, & whose climax is magnificently clever, powerful, & unexpected.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert Bloch, 3 Dec 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 179

Voodoo—whether it be Haitian Vodou, New Orleans Voodoo, rootwork, Obeah, or any other name for the syncretic practices derived from indigenous religions by African slaves in the New World—has an odd place in the Cthulhu Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft wrote very little about it; in all of his fiction, there are only two explicit references to voodoo of any sort:

[…] the one known scandal of my immediate forbears—the case of my cousin, young Randolph Delapore of Carfax, who went among the negroes and became a voodoo priest after he returned from the Mexican War.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Rats in the Walls” (1924)

Voodoo orgies multiply in Hayti, and African outposts report ominous mutterings. […] The statuette, idol, fetish, or whatever it was, had been captured some months before in the wooded swamps south of New Orleans during a raid on a supposed voodoo meeting; and so singular and hideous were the rites connected with it, that the police could not but realise that they had stumbled on a dark cult totally unknown to them, and infinitely more diabolic than even the blackest of the African voodoo circles.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu” (1928)

The sect in “The Call of Cthulhu” turns out to not be connected with voodoo at all, but both references are extremely vague on the details. Much the same could be said of “Medusa’s Coil” (written 1930), which does not feature voodoo explicitly, but includes “wrinkled Sophonisba, the ancient Zulu witch-woman” who provides the connection between Africa and the American South.

The vagueness is perhaps as it should be: Lovecraft was fairly ignorant on the subject of voodoo, as were most in the United States in the early 20th century. Interest in Haitian Vodou increased during the long United States occupation of Haiti (1915-1934) and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924). This experience provided the inspiration and raw material for Arthur J. Burks and other future pulp writers to spin wild tales of curses, cannibals, and human sacrifice; writer William Seabrook lived in Haiti for a period and investigated it, his book The Magic Island (1929) and its account of zombies stirred the American imagination, with Weird Tales writers such as Seabury Quinn and August Derleth quickly borrowing his erudition for stories like “The Corpse Master” (Weird Tales July 1929) and “The House in the Magnolias” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror June 1932). For more on this line, see Zombies from the Pulps! (2014).

Lovecraft read The Magic Island in 1931, while visiting Rev. Henry S. Whitehead in Florida. (Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 195) Whitehead had spent summers in the U. S. Virgin Islands, which had been sold to the United States in 1917, and penned tales and articles for the pulps based on the stories of “Obi” and “Jumbees” he encountered.

From The Letters of Henry S. Whitehead (1942)

After Lovecraft read The Magic Island, references to voodoo evaporate from his stories, although there are occasional references in his letters. Knowledge, in this case, may have killed the mystery that voodoo had for Lovecraft; there is no evidence he ever read Zora Neale Hurston or any other anthropologist on the subject, and there is a notable absence of reference to voodoo stories in his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—which he had initially written and published before reading The Magic Island, but which remained without reference to African-American authors or voodoo tales as supernatural fiction even in the later revised and expanded versions.

There was always a racial element as well.

Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea &c. 45

Curious that your ghost ideas in youth excluded the Indian while including the negro. For my part, though, I can’t feel much weirdness in connexion with any but the white race—so that nigger voodoo stories very largely leave me cold.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Oct 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.231

The racial aspect has much to do with prevailing American attitudes about Haiti and black religion in general. Colonialist attitudes remained firmly in place in much of the United States, to the point where Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard were shocked to hear of interracial marriages in the Virgin Islands from Whitehead. In reviewing August Derleth’s voodoo story “The House in the Magnolias,” Lovecraft wrote to his friend:

[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376

Which leads eventually to Robert Bloch’s “Mother of Serpents” (Weird Tales Dec 1936). Nothing much remains as to the genesis of this short story; there is no evidence that Lovecraft had a hand in it, or even saw it before publication. Far from Bloch’s mature work, this is a potboiler that goes for the jugular of Haitian racial and cultural stereotypes and never lets it go.

There were no happy blacks in Haiti then. They had known too much of torture and death; the carefree life of the West Indian neighbors was utterly alien to these slaves and descendants of slaves. A strange mixture of races flourished; fierce tribesmen from Ashanti, Damballah, and the Guinea Coast; sullen Caribs; dusky offspring of renegade Frenchmen; bastard admixtures of Spanish, Negro, and Indian blood. Sly, treacherous half-breeds and mulattos ruled the coast, but there were even worse dwellers in the hills behind.
—Robert Bloch, “Mother of Serpents”

Essentially a conte cruel with voodoo trappings and a supernatural denouement, much of the atmosphere of “Mother of Serpents” is built up in these broad strokes and fine details; Haiti is described as the epitome of racial tensions, black magic, and vice with all the care that Clark Ashton Smith would give to describing an island of necromancers in the far-flung future of Zothique. The description is half-erudite; it’s clear that Bloch was using Seabrook or some other sources for a few of the basic facts on Haiti (such as the legend that Henri Christophe committed suicide with a silver bullet), but it is equally obvious that he was inventing little horrible details left and right. Every character is a stereotype, and there are no heroes. The voodoo-inflected presidentkeeping in mind this was nearly two decades before the reign of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier—is (literally) a bastard, a criminal, a “black Machiavelli” who enriches himself at the expense of the country…and what is worse in his mother’s eyes, he sullies his black heritage by marrying a mixed-race woman.

Trying to unpack all the racial insinuations in this short story would take longer than the story itself, and wouldn’t achieve much. How much of this claptrap Bloch actually believed is debatable; it’s pure pulp pandering. The Mythos connection is a slim one:

The Snake-God is the real deity of the obeah cults. The blacks worshipped the Serpent in Dahomey and Senegal from time immemorial. They venerate the reptiles in a curious way, and there is some obscure linkage between the Snake and the crescent moon. Curious, isn’t it—this serpent superstition? The garden of Eden had its tempter, and the Bible tells of Moses and his staff of snakes. The Egyptians revered Set, and the ancient Hindoos had a cobra god. It seems to be general throughout the world—the kindred hatred and reverence of serpents. Always they seem to be worshipped as creatures of evil. Our own American Indians believed in Yig, and Aztec myths follow the pattern.
—Robert Bloch, “Mother of Serpents”

Damballah (in different spellings) is one of the principal loa in Haitian Vodou, and is depicted as a snake. The Egyptian god Set (Seth, Setekh, etc.) is not depicted as a serpent; possibly Bloch was making an error and remembering Robert E. Howard’s Stygian snake-deity Set from the Conan tales; although Bloch did not like Conan. Yig was the creation of H. P. Lovecraft, and appeared in “The Curse of Yig” (1929) and “The Mound” (1940), published as by Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; Lovecraft might have sent Bloch the manuscript for the latter, or perhaps Bloch was only referencing “The Curse of Yig.” In any event, the inclusion of Yig among the snake-deities must have been Bloch’s tip of the hat to Lovecraft.

“Mother of Serpents” barely qualifies as a Mythos tale. Despite being reprinted a number of times, it has not been included in any of the collections of Bloch’s Mythos fiction, and has only been reprinted in a single Mythos anthology: Il terrore di Cthulhu (1968). It is often forgotten today—a relic of Bloch’s youth, when he was still trying to find his feet in the publishing game, a few months before the death of H. P. Lovecraft and a full decade before Psycho (1959).

Voodoo, rootwork, and other syncretic religions of the Americas continue to be an element in the Cthulhu Mythos; this is especially true for roleplaying games, where occupations like “Conjure Woman” are part of Harlem Unbound and rules for voodoo magic in Secrets of New Orleans. Individual depictions run from Hollywood tropes to efforts at accurate ethnographic representation. with so little written about voodoo and how and where it fits into the Mythos, at least from Lovecraft, writers are free to indulge their imagination—and do. Some of them, such as Robert Bloch, let themselves lean in too far on the pulp stereotypes and racism both implicit and explicit in the early depictions of Haiti and Vodou.

“Mother of Serpents” can be read online.

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