“The Curate of Temphill” (1993) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price

It should be noted that this tale attempts a new stage of the evolution of Mythos fiction. It has been justly said that much Mythos fiction fails for its redundancy: the same thing happens that happened in Arkham House books of fity years ago. Once we read certain book titles or demonic names we know what will happen. The story reduces to the collection of names, almost as if that were all most readers were looking for anyway. For new Mythos fiction to have any chance of being effective perhaps it must be scrupulously spare in its referenced to the received lore.
—Robert M. Price, The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 187

This story can be read as one of the most homophobic stories in the Cthulhu Mythos. That in itself might explain why this first collaboration between Robert M. Price & Peter Cannon is a bit of an orphan. It has been published only twice, first in the ‘zine rimoire Vol. 1, # 1 (Spring 1993), and in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994), a volume edited by Price as part of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction line. Neither Price nor Cannon has seen fit to reprint it in any of their subsequent collections, nor written much about it; though it is clear from Price’s editorial comments that Cannon probably wrote the bulk of it, attempting to emulate the style of M. R. James, and that Price supplied much of the theological background. It is therefore feasible that this collaboration operated similar to their later story “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996).

The Jamesian atmosphere may have suggested the religious theme, which is Dr. Price’s special area of expertise; the setting is Temphill, part of the Severn Valley setting created by Ramsey Campbell for his own Mythos stories. Campbell might be credited with one of the first overt references to homosexuality in Mythos fiction with his short story “Cold Print” (1969), though whether that was any inspiration on “The Curate of Temphill” or simply coincidence is unclear—James was British, and Campbell’s Severn Valley is the most prominent and memorable British setting for the Mythos outside of Exham Priory (“The Rats in the Walls”). The name itself recalls the Templars…and if one traces that line of thought, perhaps leads us to the inspiration for this story.

There are certain relatively obscure elements of homosexuality in the demi-monde of legend surrounding Christianity, if you look for it. One of these is the charge at their trials that the Knights Templar practiced sodomy; another is the Secret Gospel of Mark, an apochryphal text which reads in part:

And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God…naked man with naked man…
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 196

Price & Cannon quote this material almost verbatim from the original source; what the authors are doing here is taking known elements from Christian scholarship and weaving them together to form the Mythos “lore” that the protagonist, Rev. Morgan Ackerley, slowly uncovers. It is a genuine Lovecraftian approach, developing the “secret history” of the story with all the care and attention of a good hoax, only with very unconventional (for the Mythos) source materials; readers might compare it to how Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003)created a narrative based on the remixed history, legend, and conspiracy theories of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail (1982).

Where it gets problematic in the story is specific applications. One of the most prominent:

Shortly after deciding the vandalism episode was too trivial to report to the secular authorities, he received a solemn summons to the hospital in Brichester, where Ms. Radclyffe lay in a coma, the victim of violent rape. She expired before his arrival, never regaining consciousness.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 198

While the matter is treated by suggestion and implication rather than outright stated, Vita Radclyffe was a lesbian—unmarried, living with her “companion” Florence Trefusis, reading the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928) by Radclyffe Hall, and opposed to the domination of the local church by the previous curate, who had preached “You know, the woman shalt be subservient to her lord and master, her husband—obsolete rot like that.” (ibid 190) Her death by sexual assault is treated as horrific, but the why of it is hauntingly unclear…as with much in this story.

A large part of the mystery is on purpose. M. R. James was careful to leave much of the detail to the reader’s imagination, so certain mysteries would always remain. Readers might well argue that since Radclyffe had opposed the old curate, she would also oppose the new one, and so her death would benefit the conspiracy surrounding Temphill.

That doesn’t explain why Radclyffe was either a lesbian or specifically raped to death. Neither aspect of the character is a necessary detail for the purposes of her role in the story, but the fact that both were included strongly suggests that to the authors they were. The implications are therefore nasty: Radclyffe was included in the story because it needed a female antagonist to oppose a cabal of chauvinistic men, who were preaching the strong patriarchal version of the Bible; her opposition to this patriarchial slant would be stronger if she were a feministand disinterested in men generally, hence a lesbian; her death would be all the more horrific if it came about by the very thing she opposed, hence the rape.

Horror exists for violating taboos; the thrill of crossing a boundary, be it social, sexual, legal, religious, even geographic or physical is real. Rape and violent death are a part of that, and many slasher films eagerly combine sex and death, race and death, etc. Characters are introduced as predestined victims, with the only question being not if they will survive but how they will die. It is still an ugly thing to introduce a woman to the plot specifically for her to be raped to death a few pages later, but it is not beyond the pale: H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop story “The Curse of Yig” is built around a supernatural sexual assault.

The rape in “The Curate of Temphill” in nasty in part because of the ideology behind the attack. Would a man who opposed the group be raped to death? The new curate isn’t; he is instead initiated. Would a woman who was not a lesbian be raped to death? The option is not explored, and that in itself is a bit damning. The story, as brief as it is, only gives hints and suggestions to the actual nature of beliefs held by the old curate and his group…and this is where the homophobia really starts in the story.

In Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print,” homosexuality is a secondary aspect of the main character’s sexuality, which is primarily tied up with discipline, spanking, and sadomasochism in the grand tradition of British private schools, or at least the fetishistic pornographic depiction of the same, with hints of pedophiliaall appropriate for the character Campbell was developing. Price & Cannon seem to have taken their inspiration from “Secret Mark” and the implication that Jesus Christ’s hidden teachings involved a pedophilic encounter with a young boyand perhaps by extension touching on general allegations of pedophilia and inappropriate sexual contact on the part of Catholic and Anglican priests, accounts of which have become much more public in the past several decades.

All of which Price & Cannon bring together in their finale, where they hint strongly at this turn of events with:

His parishioner had subsequently invited h im to a special meeting of select members of the Temphill and Goatswood youth groups, where certain wondrous ceremonies would be performed.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle 200

Basically, there is no male homosexual in “The Curate of Temphill” who is not also implicitly a pedophile. This might not have been the intended depiction, but the story is short and the cast is small: we aren’t given any other details to go by. It should be mentioned that this conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is not pursued by Price or Cannon in any other story. Maybe it was just the pursuit of this one set of ideas as a connecting theme—homosexual Templars, a gospel that preaches homosexual pedophilia, the prevalence of homosexual pedophilia among some priests—that suggested the story.

Yet each of those individual elements also embodies homophobia: the Templars were charged with sodomy because homosexuality was a sin; Secret Mark is blasphemous because it suggests Jesus had gay sex with a young boy; the most popular depiction of sexual assault by priests against youth is that they targeted altar boys for abuse, with the homosexual element heightening the scandal for churches that still often disapprove of homosexuality. All of that plus the ultimately needless death-by-rape of Vita Radclyffe makes this a short story with a lot of issues.

Readers at this point might ask “How does all this relate to Shub-Niggurath?”—and it does not, directly. Shub-Niggurath is associated with Campbell’s Severn Valley setting via nearby Goatswood and its inhabitants in “The Moon-Lens” (1964). The Templars were accused of worshipping Baphomet, who in turn was famously depicted as the Satanic Goat by Eliphas Levi, and Price in his introduction to The Shub-Niggurath Cycle thematically connected this figure with  “The Black Goat of the Woods,” often taken as a title for Shub-Niggurath. It is implied that the entity that raped and killed Vita Radclyffe was a satyresque figure, which would make this a rare masculine depiction of Shub-Niggurath, comparable to that in “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.


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

 

 

Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley

Joan Stanley is a long-time science-fiction and fantasy fan who fell in love with Lovecraft’s writing by reading At the Mountains of Madness while in the tenth grade. To a life-long resident of Boston, those shoggoths pouring out of the cave resembled nothing so much as a speeding MTA streetcar coming out of a Tremont Street tunnel, or a subway train screeching through the Park Street Under. She often wondered if Lovecraft had once been terrified by the city subway system. In real life, she is a criminal lawyer (that can mean whatever you wish) whose only previous forays into writing have been in the appellate courts.
Ex Libris Miskatonici, back cover copy

During the lifetime of H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries, the Cthulhu Mythos was created and grew. Different writers came up with their own unique contributions—Lovecraft with the Necronomicon, Miskatonic University, Dunwich, Innsmouth, Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, etc.; Robert E. Howard with Nameless Cults, Justin Geoffrey, and Stregoicavar; Clark Ashton Smith with the Book of Eibon, Tsathoggua, and Averoigne; Robert Bloch with Cultes des Goules and De Vermis Mysteriis; and so on and so forth. What is more exceptional, and made a true shared setting, was how they would borrow and share each other’s creations in their stories: Howard’s mad poet Justin Geoffrey would be from Lovecraft’s Arkham, Smith would slip a reference to Shub-Niggurath into tales set in Averoigne, etc.—and those strange and terrible tomes with the evocative names would end up piled next to each other in macabre libraries. It is a process that continues even today, as in “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when writers who had very different styles were writing stories far apart from one another, without any centralized source for the mythology they were concocting, there were discrepancies. Details in one story were not always in agreement with other stories. This was not all to the bad, by Lovecraft’s estimation: the little disagreements sometimes echoed real mythology, increasing the verisimilitude of the whole. It also provided a kind of literary game for readers, if they wanted to track down those different references, to see how they connected, and to theorize about the bigger background hinted at. More than a few of those writers would go on to offer their own exegesis of the Cthulhu Mythos, its history and cosmology, as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys and “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files.

Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici: A Catalogue of Selected Items from the Special Collections in the Miskatonic University Library (1993), however, is something on an entirely different scale. Ostensibly, this is a (mostly) in-universe document (the copious footnotes providing real-life references for various titles and citations), a brief history and description of the Miskatonic University Library’s Special Collections related to the Cthulhu Mythos, written in the style of a catalog. A massive investment of time in effort to collect, collate, and synthesize the vast amount of eldritch pseudobiblia created by Lovecraft & his heirs over seventy years, distilled down into a 66-page staplebound pamphlet. While there have been previous efforts to collate Mythos tomes in essays like Lin Carter’s “H. P. Lovecraft: The Books” (1956), or to collect and synthesize data on works like the Necronomicon in Mark Owing’s The Necronomicon: A Study (1967) or the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici represents one of the most substantial effort of bibliographic creativity in the Mythos until The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014).

It is a work of love, as well as scholarship and imagination.

It also represents a relatively unique opportunity to look at the occasionally problematic history of several of these Mythos tomes, and how Stanley did or did not choose to address them.

The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan were mentioned in passing by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Other Gods”, and became adopted as part of the Mythos by later writers. While Lovecraft only refers to this occult collection in “The Other Gods” and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, both set in the Dreamlands, later authors have them appearing in the waking world on Earth—and often with an affiliation for the Cthulhu Mythos in China and other parts of Asia, if not directly attributed to some Chinese scholar. The whole issue highlights the fact that most Cthulhu Mythos tomes, like most of its writers, are culturally tied to “the West” (Europe, North America, and Australia, more or less). It’s a largely implicit cultural bias which is slightly less apparent because a large number of Mythos tomes ultimately derive from some alien or pre-human source: the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic cult in Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” for example, is rumored to be headquartered in China, but the closest thing there is to a central text for the cult is not a Chinese tome, but the Necronomicon.

The use of the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan as a Chinese cultural artifact of the Mythos is probably a solution to both the lack of such a specific text in the works of Lovecraft and his contemporaries, and a desire to avoid an over-reliance on familiar standbys like the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and Cultes des Goules. While European contacts with Asia goes back thousands of years, making it not impossible for copies of these texts to have traveled the physical distance, the appearance of European Mythos tomes to the exclusion of written works in the indigenous languages and cultural context would somewhat disenfranchise local Mythos-goings-on: after all, Asia has a very long history of literacy, religion, and occultism, there is no reason why they should not have generated Mythos tomes in local languages and writing-systems. While some writers have created new tomes set in Asian context, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan have become something of a default, the Chinese equivalent of the Necronomicon for many writers purposes; it serves this function in the Masks of Nyarlathotep (1989) campaign for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example.

Stanley’s approach to the Seven Cryptical Books is synthesis, striving to bring together all the disparate references to the tome which had seen print to that time and grounding the text in actual Chinese language and history. The result is one of the best sections of Ex Libris Miskatonici, and leads into one of the most curious: the Book of DzyanHelena Blavatsky in The Secret Doctrine (1888) had claimed the Book of Dzyan as a source for her Theosophical materials, and Lovecraft referenced the book in “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” (with William Lumley) and “The Haunter of the Dark.” Stanley, however, chose to gloss it as actually an ancient Chinese work, not the more familiar Theosophical text, and thus acts as a sort of rider to the entry for the Seven Cryptical Books and previous sections in this regard.

Another consequence of Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ lack of broader cultural familiarity and penchant for exoticism were errors that cropped up in naming: “hazred” is not a proper Arabic name, nor is Al Azif; the Greek for Necronomicon is erroneous; Unaussprechlichen Kulten is not the proper German translation of Nameless Cults, and so on. Stanley, to her credit, tries to make the best of the situation by pointing out the errors and inconsistencies and offering possible solutions rather, sometimes working off the work of others (she cites Sandy Petersen’s explanation for “Abdul Alhazred” from the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, for example, with her own flourishes). For later writers and their fictional works, like Brian Lumley’s Cthaat Aquadingen, she was forced to get more creative, working up a container title (Codex Dagonensis), and then presenting Lumley’s title as a British localism.

Taken as a whole, Joan C. Stanley’s book is an exceptional example of a small and somewhat obscure form of fiction, one that seeks to mimic creative non-fiction with all the care and attention to detail of a good hoax. This kind of effort to create an “in-universe” document (more or less) is more typically associated with the occult (such as the Simon Necronomicon (1977)) or roleplaying games (such as Le Culte des Goules (2012) by Antoine Téchenet), but it represents the fundamental desire that readers have to interact with the Mythos at a deeper level. Ex Libris Miskatonici is a high-level example of the interaction between fan-fiction and fan-scholarship, showcasing not just the mental gymnastics that some Mythos writers have to go through, but that something positive and worthwhile can result.

Necronomicon Press published Ex Libris Miskatonici in 1993, and a second edition in 1995. It has since been out of print.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)