Some of Lovecraft’s friends remonstrated with him and regretted that he spent so much time as a revisionist. There is no evidence, however, that Lovecraft chafed at this means of making an extremely meagre living. He was generous with his astounding sapience and derived a genuine sense of pleasure and satisfaction out of giving his wisdom and erudition to help others.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 253
As much as scholars of H. P. Lovecraft’s life and work rely on the rich trove of letters that he has left behind, they do not cover all of his life—and his many friends, family, acquaintances, and revision clients left their own record of his life, in letters and diaries and memoirs. The sources are valuable accounts, but as new information becomes available, they are also subject to new scrutiny, and what might have been considered rock-solid “facts” about Lovecraft in the 1950s and ’60s is sometimes subject to reinterpretation and change.
“H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was published in 1953 as part of The Curse of Yig (Arkham House). The author was Zealia Bishop, who from roughly 1927-1937 was one of Lovecraft’s correspondents and revision clients. From her synopses Lovecraft produced three weird tales (“The Curse of Yig,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and “The Mound”) and had a hand in several of her unpublished stories. This memoir was for many years was essentially the only information that most fans and scholars had on this part of Lovecraft’s life.
It was not until the Selected Letters II was published, containing fourteen abridged letters from the Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence and scattered references about Zealia Bishop by Lovecraft in letters to others that there was anything to verify or compare her account…and it would not be until 2015, when a trove of recently-found letters from the Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence was published as The Spirit of Revision (H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society) that a fuller picture of their professional and personal relationship could be established.
Even before The Spirit of Revision, however, scholars questioned parts of Bishop’s essay. For example, her account of how she came into contact with Lovecraft:
It was in 1928 in a small bookstore in Cleveland that I first learned of Lovecraft. The bookstore was managed by Samuel Loveman, a bibliophile and writer of verse who had achieved some minor fame as friend of the poet, Hart Crane. […] Bookstore proprietors are always being asked by amateurs to recommend publishers, teachers and critics. I was no exception. At my inquiry, in the course of our conversation, Mr. Loveman told me about Lovecraft.
“Write to him,” he advised. “He can help you, if anyone can.”
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 253-254
The problem was, Samuel Loveman was not in Cleveland in 1928, but in New York City, where he had moved in 1924; the earliest letter from Lovecraft to Zealia is dated 10 May 1927 (SOR 29). While she might well have gotten in contact with Lovecraft via his friend Sam Loveman, it almost certainly could not have happened the way she said it did. Nor is this the only discrepancy that can be pointed out in Zealia’s memoir.
To understand some of the problems in “A Pupil’s View,” it might help to know how and when it was written. August Derleth wrote to Zealia Bishop shortly after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, asking for any letters she could contribute to what would become the Selected Letters and about the stories that R. H. Barlow had said Lovecraft had revised/ghostwritten for her. In one of her answering letters, Zealia promised:
I shall prepare an article or—data—on what I think may be of general interest in regard to Howard’s revision work—and send you within the next week—but shall await your reply and if I have anything which you can use I shall compile it for you—and do all in my power to assist you in every way.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 8 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
There is no evidence that Zealia actually produced an article in 1937, and the subject come up again in the Bishop/Derleth correspondence in 1950:
I hope you won’t find too many things wrong with the Lovecraft article. If that passes, then I shall not worry about the others, for he is not an altogether easy subject about whom one can write, yet a very interesting one. Thank you for sending me Cats etc. I shall send you a check for same…but you are always hitting me between the eyes, it seems, as being the only one who was really indebted to Lovecraft as a “client”, paying him for revision! Do you think that is all quite “cricket” as hard as I’ve worked for so many years? Remember, it was Loveman who first sent me to Lovecraft (when he was living in Cleveland) and I sometimes wonder if he remembers about it, however, it was Howard who had me take a course at Columbia University and also study privately with Thomas Uzzell—while I was in New York and it was then we found out I could gain much more by my own efforts with Howard guiding me along the way when I needed it…but I never should have followed the path of the weird tale despite all the material I gathered from the people in the south and in Mexico and Latin America. My yet unfinished tale is one with Aztec mythology woven through it and I think Howard was well pleased with the progress I made without his supervision…even as he was with three of my novels. Sometimes I shall send you the letters he wrote about them…telling me how I had progressed with structure and the choice of words.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
Cut to two years later:
You’re wrong, fellow, I haven’t fallen down on the job about the articles on you and H. P. L. I finished them two years ago, but kept rewriting them, unable to throw off that damnable self-consciousness instilled in me by Lovecraft. Now, however, I’ve developed more positiveness and will send them to you for approval and corrections where you feel necessary.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 12 Aug 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
Far from being the fresh recollections of a Lovecraft just recently passed in 1937, then, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was really written some 13-15 years after his death. A few allowances for memory might be made in such a span of time, but there are other key factors in the composition of “A Pupil’s View” to consider. The first of these is August Derleth’s quiet role in the production.
Would you prefer that I send on the Lovecraft and Derleth articles for you to groan over, and cut, augment and suggest in person?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Sep 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
At last here is the article. I hope that it does not fall far short of my opinion of you and that you will see some improvement in my writing. Feel free to augment and delete as you see fit. […] At the time I began the article on you I started one on Lovecraft this should be finished for your approval before I get there—you understand I will need photographs for both? […] In the event my short stories are published as a collection I plan to include both articles. Does that meet with your approval? If only the weird are selected for one book then both articles—DERLETH-LOVECRAFT—would be most appropos—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Oct 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
At this point, Zealia had committed to writing two profiles, one on Lovecraft (“A Pupil’s View”) and one on Derleth himself (“A Wisconsin Balzac”). Bishop’s letters to Derleth continue to talk about re-writing these articles into 1953, when Zealia Bishop signed a contract for Arkham House to publish The Curse of Yig. Whatever the final product that Zealia delivered after years of re-writing, she apparently did not think it adequate, and instructed Derleth:
Evidently you misunderstood me that day at lunch in Madison. I thought I was very explicit—as well as Helen—that I told you “everything was ready to go except I wanted to rewrite the DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. And that I would positively have to rewrite the LOVECRAFT article entirely.”
I have done what I could on it and am sending it as is, “but I am not in the slightest pleased with it and feel that I should be the one to rewrite it.”
The material is here and could be redone beautifully but it would take me at least another two weeks so I am sending it so that you may pass judgement edit it and then if you think I should rewrite it return or bring it.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 25 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
If necessary “brush up” the Eschutcheon [sic] as well as the Derleth & Lovecraft articles
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (1953?), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
Looking at “A Pupil’s View” with an eye toward a possible Derlethian influence, several parts of the memoir jump out immediately. The first few glowing paragraphs of “A Pupil’s View” do not sound like Zealia Bishop; they discuss Lovecraft’s rise in prominence in American letters (which Zealia does not seem aware of), his devoted followers and fellow pulpsters (including several she never mentions in any other letter and probably never heard of, such as Robert E. Howard and Henry Kuttner); and references to overseas sales, the Arkham House collections of Lovecraft’s fiction, and “magazines containing his work command equally high premiums” which sound very much like the standard Derlethian sales line.
Later in the narrative, Zealia Bishop goes into a very atypical reference to the Cthulhu Mythos—in accordance with Derleth’s interpretation:
[…] our conversation naturally turned to Lovecraft and his fantastic story themes, especially those of the Cthulhu Mythos, which were based on a curious pantheon of Gods and Elder Beings with a marked basic similarity to the Christian Genesis story of the struggle between good and evil.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 261
It is conceivable that Bishop had absorbed this point of view from Derleth’s introductions in Arkham House books and his various Cthulhu Mythos stories. The conversation is supposed to have happened in June 1928, and “The Call of Cthulhu” had been published in the February 1928 Weird Tales, so the timing for talking about Cthulhu isn’t necessarily off—but the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” wasn’t coined or popularized until some years later by Derleth. The last paragraphs too are very Derlethian in tone, especially:
But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H.P.L.: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 263
Without access to the original manuscript that Zealia Bishop submitted to August Derleth, it is speculative to guess at his how much or any of this was material he wrote. To play devil’s advocate: If Derleth did have a large hand in this piece, or at least did a proper editorial pass on the the manuscript, we might expect certain little details to have been quietly edited out that were left in. For example, Zealia’s rather hyperbolic claims about Lovecraft’s ability with languages:
He was well versed in the language of the Kaffirs, Damoras, Swahilhi and the Chulhu and Zani—who are extremely tenacious of their ancient religion. […] He wrote as fluently in Greek and Latin as in English and when he began his strict instructions in Aztec Mythology he often wrote to me in Spanish.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 254, 255
While Lovecraft was proficient in Latin, and had some rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Spanish (the latter at least for the Spanish phrases in “The Mound”), he had no knowledge of African languages. It’s possible that Lovecraft had written something about these language (probably referencing from an encyclopedia article) in a letter which does not survive, but you’d think Derleth would have caught this error…but, we can only speculate. Taken together, a Derleth editing/partial re-write and aged memory might explain a few of the parts of the “A Pupil’s View” that don’t fit what we know of Lovecraft from other sources.
The second key factor to consider in “A Pupil’s View” is why Zealia wrote it, and her motives were not restricted to praising Lovecraft and preserving his memory. She wanted to make it absolutely clear who actually wrote the stories in The Curse of Yig:
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. This 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 wit this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showed me with letters and instructions.
Now at least I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it about the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 258
So on with “Medusa’s Coil” and “The Mound.” Zealia Bishop would not admit to Lovecraft’s authorship, or even of his editing. Even the name of her memoir “A Pupil’s View” shows how she wanted the relationship to be perceived: she was Lovecraft’s student, paying him for his writing advice, not a client paying him to ghost-write stories for her. So above and beyond all else, “A Pupil’s View” was written specifically to convince readers and critics that these were not Lovecraft revisions or collaborations—which is what Derleth and Arkham House had been selling the Bishop/Lovecraft stories as in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943) and Marginalia (1944).
Lovecraft told a different story in his letters, including to August Derleth and his friend and future literary executor R. H. Barlow. August Derleth had written to Zealia Bishop on Barlow’s advice, with the specific aim of publishing the Lovecraft collaborations. So Derleth was certainly well aware of what Zealia Bishop was doing, and why she was doing it. One late letter makes this perfectly clear:
Remember, August, in Howard’s new book—His Letters etc., please don’t let it appear that I was never able to do anything for myself. Is it your opinion that in these anthologies all credit goes to Howard? Was that your intention or what?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d., MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society
Selected Letters II was published in 1968, the same year that Zealia Bishop passed away.
Taking it as a given then what Zealia Bishop was trying to accomplish with “A Pupil’s View” was primarily to preserve her reputation as a writer—that writing in 1952-1953 should would be trying to recall events from about 25 years prior when she first began to correspond with Lovecraft—and that August Derleth appears to have had at a quiet hand in amending and editing the document—is there anything of value to be extracted from it? Can we trust anything that Zealia Bishop wrote?
Surprisingly, more than you think. While some of her claims are farcical (Lovecraft wasn’t an expert on Aztec mythology either), the correspondence in The Spirit of Revision actually supports Zealia Bishop’s general narrative of the relationship. In the absence of more of her letters to Lovecraft, which are long gone at this point, it is her only account of her side of the relationship, including her frustrations at their different tastes in writing. In addition to this, “A Pupil’s View” is the only first-person account of Zealia’s brief meeting with Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long, Jr. in New York City on 29 May 1929.
The most difficult question remains Zealia’s account of the actual conception and background behind “The Curse of Yig,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and “The Mound.” Lovecraft’s letters make it pretty clear that he ended up writing most of “The Curse of Yig,” and basically all of “Medusa’s Coil” and “The Mound” from synopses provided by Bishop. So what, if anything, can we trust of her account?
In our conversation we discussed among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma—and my stories, “The Curse of Yig” and “Medusa’s Coil,” which I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some housecleaning for me and expanded into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260
The sources of inspiration given seem plausible. “Grandma Compton” appears as a character in both “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound,” and Zealia Brown Bishop’s sister was Grace Brown Compton—so there is no reason to doubt that Grace Compton’s mother-in-law was the original for “Grandma Compton.” The locale of “The Mound” is reasonably accurate to the mound-legends around Binger, Oklahoma. “Medusa’s Coil” is not tied to the Grandma Compton mythos, but an African-American housekeeper telling the story of a mixed-race woman “passing” as white is not far-fetched.
Serious cracks in the Zealia Bishop’s narrative don’t appear to have been seriously appeared until after her death. In “A Pupil’s View,” she alleges that at Lovecraft’s advice, Frank Belknap Long worked with her on “The Mound”:
In the ensuing conversation we took up the subject of “Medusa’s Coil.” It was decided that I should continue working on that under Lovecraft’s direction. “However,” he said, “I would like Belknap to work with you on your new story ‘The Mound.’ He may have something fresher and more interesting to offer.[“] […]
At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 260
In his own memoir of Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long refuted this:
I had nothing whatever to do with the writing of The Mound. That brooding, somber, and magnificently atmospheric story is Lovecraftian from the first page to the last.
—Frank Belknap Long, Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside (1975) xiii-xiv
The truth appears to have been somewhat more complicated, at least according to the surviving correspondent and typescripts. Lovecraft certainly appears to have written “The Mound” based on the Binger mound legends provided by Zealia Bishop; when it failed to sell, he advised her to let Belknap market it, and he had abridged the novella and tried to do so, but failed:
You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mount to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just not to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once […]
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177
As to the matter of the Bishop MSS.—of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. B—in view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revision—to let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143
R. H. Barlow was able to eventually cobble together a complete version of the manuscript, which he then bound with letters from Zealia Bishop and Frank Belknap Long relevant to its provenance.
In 1978, S. T. Joshi launched a more serious criticism at Bishop’s narrative in his essay “Who Wrote ‘The Mound?'” in Nyctalops #14. Joshi’s careful picking through the available evidence (Lovecraft’s published and unpublished letters, and manuscript material in the Lovecraft collection at John Hay Library at Brown University) reconstructed the convoluted textual history, and dismissed Bishop’s claims of authorship.
Others were coming more-or-less to the same conclusion and articles like “The Mound of Yig?” (1973, Etchings & Odysseys) by W. E. Baardson, “In Search of Yig” (1974, Nyctalops #9) by John J. Koblas, “‘Yig,’ ‘The Mound’ and American Indian Lore” (1983, Crypt of Cthulhu #11) by Michael DiGregorio all looked for the genuine lore underlying “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound,” taking Bishop’s basic claims of inspiration from regional folklore as true—and unfortunately spending a lot of time looking in the wrong places for a bit of lore that Lovecraft had invented.
Joshi would edit the corrected third printing to The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989, Arkham House), and in his “A Note on the Texts” referenced the abridgement, mistranscription, and editing of Bishop’s stories by Long and Derleth. The book also reprinted August Derleth’s 1970 introduction (“Lovecraft’s ‘Revisions'”), where the Arkham House founder quoted from “A Pupil’s View”:
The stories I sent to him always came back so revised from their basic idea that I felt I was a complete failure as a writer.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 257
There is a certain pathos to this statement, because it is probably true. It is rather sad in many ways that we cannot take more of “A Pupil’s View” as the unvarnished truth. It would be easier to read and believe Zealia’s account of her struggles with the difference between where she wanted to go in her writing versus the direction that Lovecraft direction if it wasn’t necessary to put each statement under the critical microscope. Her affection for her “mentor” certainly seems genuine, even if she sometimes disagreed with him, and the occasional overblown claim about his linguistic abilities seems to be more a sign of admiration than a deliberate effort to mislead. Errors like Lovecraft’s age (she gives his age as 35 in 1928, he was actually 38) appear to be honest mistakes, the kind of thing Derleth should have caught.
“H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was first published in The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House) and has been reprinted in Lovecraft Remembered (1998, Arkham House) and Ave Atque Vale (2018, Necronomicon Press).
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).