“Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr.

And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt. Who he was, none could tell, but he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh. The fellahin knelt when they saw him, yet could not say why. He said he had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries, and that he had heard messages from places not on this planet. Into the lands of civilisation came Nyarlathotep, swarthy, slender, and sinister, always buying strange instruments of glass and metal and combining them into instruments yet stranger. He spoke much of the sciences—of electricity and psychology—and gave exhibitions of power which sent his spectators away speechless, yet which swelled his fame to exceeding magnitude. Men advised one another to see Nyarlathotep, and shuddered. And where Nyarlathotep went, rest vanished; for the small hours were rent with the screams of nightmare.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Nyarlathotep”

Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors by noted Lovecraft scholar Kenneth W. Faig Jr. is very much in the vein of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price in that it is a piece of fictional scholarship as much as anything else. The four stories in the collection are “what ifs?,” imagining chapters of Lovecraft’s life that could have been, as discovered some decades later by dedicated scholars like Faig. The stories are all generally plausible, and present less a “what might have been” than an alternate viewpoint on their subject—H. P. Lovecraft.

Not many now living will recall the Egyptian vogue of the eighteen-seventies…fifty years before King Tut and his curse fixed their hold upon the popular imagination…but a few of our older citizen will recall the famous Black or Nigger Hotep who held the audiences of at Olney’s Opera House spellbound with his Egyptian regalia and bizarre contraptions in those day. How Charles Wilson Hodap became the Black Hotep is a story which I cannot relate to you […]
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

The third tale recounts the discovery and tracking-down of biographical information of Charles Wilson Hodap, an African-American stage magician who performed under the title “Black Hotep,” with an Egyptian theme. The narrator is ostensibly David Parkes Boynton, a (fictional) very early and enthusiastic Lovecraft collector, but this is really a device of Faig’s. The narrative is primarily a combination of correspondence and interviews, with a little exposition mixed in. More than enough for readers to follow the chain of evidence as Boynton investigates whether it was this “Black Hotep” that inspired H. P. Lovecraft to create Nyarlathotep.

Nyarlathotep is one of Lovecraft’s most ambiguous creations. In the prose-poem “Nyarlathotep” and sonnet XXI of the “Fungi from Yuggoth,” Nyarlathotep is a kind of showman-prophet of doom; in “The Rats in the Walls” he is a “mad, faceless god” at Earth’s center; in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he is the “soul and messenger of the Outer Gods,” the crawling chaos; in “The Dreams in the Witch House” he is one with the Black Man of the Witch Cult; and he is mentioned in passing in “The Whisperer in Darkness,” “The Haunter of the Dark,” “The Shadow out of Time,” “The Mound,” and “The Last Test” as part of the Mythos. Other writers would expand considerably on Nyarlathotep, explaining away his varied appearances as avatars or “masks,” but the initial presentation that many readers receive of Nyarlathotep from Lovecraft’s stories is that of a dark-skinned man, at least when the crawling chaos is in human form:

And at the last from inner Egypt came
The strange dark One to whom the fellahs bowed;
Silent and lean and cryptically proud,
And wrapped in fabrics red as sunset flame.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Fungi From Yuggoth Sonnet XXI. Nyarlathotep”

Then down the wide lane betwixt the two columns a lone figure strode; a tall, slim figure with the young face of an antique Pharaoh, gay with prismatic robes and crowned with a golden pshent that glowed with inherent light. Close up to Carter strode that regal figure; whose proud carriage and swart features had in them the fascination of a dark god or fallen archangel, and around whose eyes there lurked the languid sparkle of capricious humour.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath

The evilly grinning beldame still clutched him, and beyond the table stood a figure he had never seen before—a tall, lean man of dead black colouration but without the slightest sign of negroid features; wholly devoid of either hair or beard, and wearing as his only garment a shapeless robe of some heavy black fabric. His feet were indistinguishable because of the table and bench, but he must have been shod, since there was a clicking whenever he changed position. The man did not speak, and bore no trace of expression on his small, regular features.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch House”

“Black” or “svart” in this context does not necessarily mean that Nyarlathotep’s human form took on the appearance of sub-Saharan African or African-American, and Lovecraft’s description in “The Dreams in the Witch House” in particular is explicitly not, and with the rest of the apparatus of the witch-cult inspired by Margaret Murray’The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), where the Devil is often described as appearing dressed in black clothing, and with cloven hooves; a “black man” connected with witchcraft also appears in Arthur Machen’s “The White People”, which influenced Lovecraft.

Whether or not Nyarlathotep’s human appearance is “black” (or Arabic, or anything else) in the sense of race is largely irrelevant to the plot of the stories he appears in, though in the poems it adds an exotic element to his history, a suggestion of otherness. But when readers are aware of Lovecraft’s prejudice against black people, they may interpret the stories differently—and later writers and artists are forced to consider the issue of how to depict Nyarlathotep, and in human form that at least implicitly means discussing the physical features associated with race—even Lovecraft feels the need to specify the Black Man of the Witch Cult is “not Negroid.” Adding a racial dimension to the characterization means addressing racial prejudice. Is Nyarlathotep an example of Lovecraft’s racism?

Probably not—at least, there is no indication in Lovecraft’s letters that he ever intended such a characterization of the crawling chaos—but such issues must underlie and inform Faig’s narrative of Charles Wilson Hodap. Boynton detective work slowly unveils more information about the life of this African-American entertainer, and finally hit upon the crucial connection with a young, enthusiastic audience: a six-year old Howard Phillips Lovecraft. Here, Boynton believes he has found the inspiration for at least one of Lovecraft’s iconic creations: a hardworking, kindly black entertainer.

The conceit works to the extant that it is a neat solution; Faig, being the Lovecraft scholar her is, ties it in with Lovecraft’s life and the history of Providence. It is an ultimately believable and perhaps a touch mundane revelation, one which requires no grimoires or neuroses. The final pages detail a scholar’s best wishes for such a discovery, with articles published, associated materials related to Hodap’s life found and deposited with an appropriate library, and funds raised to place a proper marker on the graves of Hodap and his wife. It is as warm and fuzzy an ending as one might hope for in such a story.

The shadow of Lovecraft’s racism remains, hovering over the narrative, and the question to ask is: is Faig attempting to downplay or whitewash Lovecraft’s racism? Certainly he is playing with the idea that Nyarlathotep as conceived by a young Lovecraft was “black” in a racial sense. The text, aside from a couple incidents of “Nigger Hotep” is markedly limited in its depiction of period racism.

Accompanying the advertisement was a line drawing of Hotep himself, sketched against a background of a fantastic array of mirrors and strange-looking apparatus. Naked from the waist up, Hotep’s flesh was inked in the blackest ebony, forming a stark contrast with the white of the strange-looking turban which crowned his head and the loose, skirt-like garment which fell from his waist. From hi features, so far as I could tell from the drawing, I judged him to be a Negro of the purest Nubian type.
—Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944) in Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors 31.

Young Lovecraft himself never appears on the page to give a personal opinion. The idea of a positive relationship with an African-American is probably out of context for most readers aware of Lovecraft’s prejudices, but not necessarily inaccurate to life. If it were true—if Black Hotep had existed and inspired Lovecraft’s Nyarlathotep—would that change anything of the readers’ opinions of Lovecraft himself? Would it inform or influence how they viewed appearances of Nyarlathotep when they read his stories again, seeing the vaguely sinister figure in a more theatrical bent, like William Marshall in Blacula?

Without addressing these subjects directly, Faig’s tale is in many ways a reflection on the nature of Nyarlathotep, H. P. Lovecraft, and the readers’ relationship with both. Just as readers’ interpretation of Nyarlathotep can shift when they are aware of Lovecraft’s racism, so can readers be made to question that interpretation by presenting a kind of counter-example: a Lovecraft who instead of being afraid of black people, found inspiration in at least one black entertainer, whose legacy lives on through his work.

Of course, Charles Wilson Hodap never existed; Faig’s story is a work of fiction, and Lovecraft scholars have posited other origins for Nyarlathotep. Is this then a story of an alternate timeline, or an idealized timeline? This kind of biographical fiction focused around Lovecraft or other authors is its own kind of metafictional biography, perhaps best represented by works like Peter Cannon’s The Lovecraft Chronicles (2004).

It does not seek to rewrite the past, exactly: the Lovecraft who encounters Faig’s Black Hotep is still presumably the Lovecraft that grows up to argue for the necessity of segregation and the biological inferiority of black people. Yet it present an example of an African-American that had a positive, and perhaps essential, effect on Lovecraft—and while that may not counterbalance everything Lovecraft wrote and said on the subject of race, it is difficult not to see it as inviting reflection along those lines.

The Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors were first published from 1979 to 1988 in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association. They were collected in a limited edition and published by Moshassuck Pres in 1989, and then revised and published by Necronomicon Press in 1995. Faig has published numerous other works about Lovecraft and the Mythos.

 

“Unseen” (1995) by Penelope Love

Not in the spaces we know, but between them, They walk serene and primal, undimensioned and to us unseen.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

Some of the best stories are those that leave a great deal unsaid and unseen, letting the reader fill in the gaps on their own. A few critics have called this a weakness when it comes to horror stories—the inability of the writer to describe things, or a crutch to avoid giving description. Yet not every story needs for every mystery to be explained, and there are narratives where the very inexplicableness of events is part of the point. Something Penelope Love captures very well.

A new road is going through Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley, to cut through an ancient earthwork known as Morley’s Mound. Rescue archaeologists have arrived to excavate, to see what they can salvage before the bulldozers and concrete mixers come. A pleasant, tight-knit group let by the shy Andrew, who is on the dig with his wife Carol and their newborn Diane. Josephine has come to write up the dig for a local paper. The cozy domesticity is only interrupted by the fact that the site had been disturbed by a self-styled antiquarian in the last century—the eponymous Morley—who had tunneled into the mound and left something behind. A quasi-Grecian mask of Byatis.

The disappearance of Carol and baby Diane is inexplicable. The center of the narrative cannot hold, the long paragraphs fall apart into patchy staccato snippets of the investigation. All the set-up for a murder mystery, suspicion falling on each in turn, to be as quickly dismissed. Mum and child are gone. Some people just vanish, and it is left for those left behind to try and make peace with it—even if there is no sense to make of it.

The pain of not knowing is a very adult fear.

There is no Mythos horror in the conventional sense in this story; it is much more personal. As with “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens, the Mythos is the catalyst to bring cosmic horror to a more personal level. It is one thing to know, intellectually, that all things will die; it is something else again to have it actually happen, especially without any apparent reason. If Love had left it at that, it would have been a competent enough piece of fiction, though critics could point out that nothing much happens and it would appear to be only tangentially connected to the Mythos.

However, “Unseen” is bookended with an opening statement from Lovecraft, which supplies the title but apparently nothing else…until the very end. As the bulldozers rend the barrow open, and the final mystery is discharged. It isn’t an answer, not really, but it is a conclusion. A piece of a puzzle that will never be completed, but enough edge pieces are in place to guess at the shape of the thing—and that is enough. It is quintessentially Lovecraftian, in the sense that Love takes one of Lovecraft’s ideas and runs with it, and shows the reader what it is like when something intersects the normal human life from outside, and upsets all previously held notions of space and time.

“Unseen” was published in Made in Goatswood (1995), and has never been reprinted. Penelope Love has written a substantial amount of Mythos material, much of it for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, where her credits include The Horror on the Orient Express and Terror Australis. Her Mythos fiction includes “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” (2010), “Daddy, Daddy” (2014), and “Turn Out The Light” (2015).

 

 

“The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins

Of the hundred copies of the Aegrisomnia that Shroud had privately published, however, only one was complete and unabridged. And bound in leather. And that was Stroud’s private copy—the one with his own personal annotations scrawled in the margins. The one he had bound himself—with the skin of his virgin daughter. Granted, she wasn’t his legitimate daughter—her mother was a marginally retarded scullery maid who had been with the household since childhood—but the gesture put to the pale anything the self-styled “Beast” had ever done.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Land of the Reflected Ones,” Eternal Lovecraft 93

The NecronomiconUnaussprechlichen KultenCultes de GoulesThe Book of Eibon. Names to conjure with, and many folks have tried to do just that over the decades. Lovecraft’s evocative title and elaborate history of the Necronomicon inspired comparable efforts by Robert E. Howard and others, and by 1937 there was a veritable library of Mythos tomes—yet only an inkling of what would come. The invention and proliferation of these occult tomes has become a characteristic of the Mythos in its many forms, some writers would elaborate on works created by Lovecraft and others, many would create their own additions to the growing catalog. Entire books have been written about these fictional grimoires, from fictional works like Joan C. Stanley’s Ex Libris Miskatonici (1995) and Nate Pedersen’s The Starry Wisdom Library (2014) anthology to non-fiction books like Harms & Gonce’ The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend (2003).

Pseudobibliophilia takes an odd turn in Nancy Collins’ “The Land of the Reflected Ones.” By the numbers, this is straightforward Mythos pastiche: Emerson wants the Aegrisomnia; the old man wants too much money for it…but Emerson gets the book anyway, and in a manner that no reader will feel bad for what happens to him afterwards. Yet there’s a strange dinginess to the situation which Collins deliberately plays up: the quarrel is over a difference of two hundred dollars. Whatever priceless secrets it holds, that’s what the book is worth to the old man, because he needs to cover the rent for himself and his wife—and it is more than Emerson can afford.

The situation is both tragic and ironic: Emerson, gloats about his superiority over others while admitting that he doesn’t understand people, and has exhausted his sizable inheritance on occult tomes to no appreciable benefit; he gloats over the power and fortune that the book will give him, without considering the consequences of getting what he wants, despite the quite wisdom of the old man; and in the end Emerson is forced to abandon what little he has to flee from the police for his crime, and in fleeing one prison, ends up in a far worse one—with the tiny coup de grâce delivered by the old man’s wife.  From beginning to end, all that happens to Emerson is his own fault, and the reader can only follow along, and nod—because Emerson is a bastard, designed to remove the slightest trace of sympathy for the character.

The plot may be uncomplicated, but it’s fine execution, the foreshadowing of Through the Looking-Glass, and the way some common Mythos tropes and conceptions are subverted in this story make it shine. Emerson is a bastard of a character, a vain and self-centered occultist who thinks he’s better than everyone else because he comes from a privileged background; the dark mirror-image of the Lovecraftian protagonist in many ways. The materialist money-grubbing over the Aegrisomnia stands in stark contrast to the almost spiritual aesthetics which govern the Mythos in place of crass economics: rather than being held as a priceless relic, the grimoire is reduced to a commodity with a price tag, and not even a fabulously expensive one at that. The grand plans of Emerson and the cosmic horrors hinted at by his occult library are undershot and mired in the tawdriness of the whole affair.

Weirdly for a Cthulhu Mythos tale, “The Land of the Reflected Ones” there is also a distinct moral framework to the story.

In H. P. Lovecraft’s original conception, the universe of the Mythos is essentially amoral, in the sense that “bad” deeds are not specifically punished and “good” deeds not specifically rewarded. There are tales of revenge, such as “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” and the macabre quasi-fable of “The Cats of Ulthar,” and the “villains” and “monsters” in Lovecraft’s stories often face some setback or grisly end—yet the “victories” are almost always temporary and ultimately somewhat hollow. “The Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be.” Azathoth, the ultimate power and authority in Lovecraft’s cosmology, is a blind idiot who will devour everyone indiscriminately. “Good and bad,” are human terms, from a human frame of reference.

Collins provides that frame of reference by contrasting the immoral, unsociable, power-hungry Emerson with the old bookseller and his wife. In one of the best passages in the story, the old man relates:

I know human leather when I see it. Had a book come through here a few years back—belonged to some bastard in the Nazi High Command. It was pornographic pictures—women with animals, men with children. It was bound just like that. I burned it. I would have burned that thing, too, if I didn’t need the money so badly—

The old man’s error, which leads to his death, is not trusting his instincts. If he’d left the Aegrisomnia alone, or burned it, then he’d never have had to deal with Emerson. The old man’s wife is Emerson’s comeuppance: raised by his entitled mother to think he was better than everyone else comes to bite Emerson in the ass when one of the people he thought was beneath him turns out to be a sorceress in her own right—just as,  ironically, Emerson’s own mother was eventually unplugged by her own son, because she raised him to be such a prick.

The Aegrisomnia itself is the MacGuffin, and the plot of the story as a Mythos pastiche rests on its characterization; consequently the book gets more descriptive text and history than Emerson or any of the other characters. The backstory briefly parallels  the familiar histories of the Necronomicon and Unaussprechlichen Kulten, with cycles of translation and prohibition, but the fine details—the Borgia pope, the human leather cover, the disappearance during the Blitz—are evocative and specific without delving into excess. Even the name aegri somnia (“troubled dreams”) hints at the bad karma that surrounds this book.

Collins’ story probably owes a debt to Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print” (1969). Both stories involve a bookshop, bring the Mythos down to the gritty street-level, obsessive protagonists, and have a similar approach to Mythos books as a kind of quasi-pornography—taboo literature which both readers and characters tend to fetishize above and beyond the actual content. Collins name-drops Campbell’s Revelations of Glaaki among the titles in Emerson’s library, a nice nod to one of the contemporary masters of Mythos fiction.

“The Land of the Reflected Ones” first appeared in Tombs (1995) and has been reprinted twice, in Eternal Lovecraft: The Persistence of H. P. Lovecraft in Popular Culture (1998) and Collins’ collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000). Nancy A. Collins has written over seventeen novels, as well as dozens of short stories and comic books. Her other most notable Cthulhu Mythos story is “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), which also appears in Avenue X and most recently in Tales Out of Dunwich (2005) and as an ebook (2012). “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was nominated for a Bram Stoker award for best novelette. The Aegrisomnia was introduced in “Sunglasses After Dark” (1989), the first in Collins’ Sonja Blue stories.