“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


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

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins

Lovers’ Lane was really an old logging road on the side of Goat Hill, which overlooked Misty Valley. On a clear night, you could look out and see the entire valley spread out, with the lights of the town reflected in the Miskatonic River, which wound through the center of the village like a dark ribbon.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” in Tales Out of Dunwich 163

The Dunwich Horror took place in 1928. H. P. Lovecraft never lived to see the decades tick by, highways springing up, World War II, rock & roll, young men with greased-back hair and black leather jackets taking cheerleaders in bobby socks up to Lover’s Lane…

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is a projection of Lovecraft’s Mythos into those decades he never lived to see, and is pitch-perfect in how the characters react, their views and voices in terms of the era. The plot itself is straightforward, almost familiar in its beats. How many times have readers come across a Mythos-related pregnancy? “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft, “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron—and so many others. Female characters have been impregnated by Mythos entities almost since there was a Mythos—before that even, if you count Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal”. Yet old familiar themes can still be potent, in the right hands.

The novelty may have worn off, but Nancy Collins handles the execution with characteristic skill. How would a 1950s community respond to such an event?

Principal Strickland says that having a girl in—well, in your condition, is bad for morale. Carol Anne—you’re the Homecoming Queen! What kind of standard are you folding up to the other girls? If you keep the baby, I’m afraid you won’t be allowed back into class come the new school year!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 178

The desire to save face—either through a “therapeutic abortion” or discreetly sending Carol Anne off to a home for unwed mothers where she can give birth and put the child up for adoption—is almost comic compared to the reality of the situation. Carol Anne’s own agency in the matter is strong (“I don’t care! I’m not giving up my baby!”) despite her mother’s pleadings (“Carol Anne—what will people think?“)…or is it?

It wants you to think I’m the father! That way it’s safe for it to be born!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 180

Most Mythos stories don’t discuss the ugly details of these sexual encounters with Mythos entities, much less their aftermath. Rape is not pleasant, and was not for Carol Anne; humans have had means for dealing with unwanted pregnancies and children for thousands of years, and in recent decades knowledge of and access to birth control and abortion have become more widespread. Collins, working in a contemporary setting, had to acknowledge that Carol Anne had options—and she did.

Narrative impetus in this case is that Shub-Niggurath’s thousand-and-first young must be borne. So Carol Anne’s agency had to be subverted, and her victimization in this story is one of the nastier cases in any Mythos story. All she wanted was to have a little fun at Lover’s Lane with her boyfriend, and because of that she was raped, knocked up, faced the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother in ’50s America…and, ultimately, died giving birth. The story is almost a 1950s fable, to scare girls away from following in her footsteps. Collins goes into far greater detail about the horror Carol Anne suffers at each step, leaving only the erotic details off the page.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Sex and horror go together; titillation and terror are both states of excitement, and sex elicits a thrill to many readers. Pregnancy especially has its place in the horrors that women feel—and for many Mythos stories the result is almost routine: of course sex leads to pregnancy. Maybe the mother will die in childbirth, or maybe it’ll only be the spawn that the heroes have to deal with. The mother herself rarely gets much attention. Here, at least, Nancy Collins does not ignore or downplay the suffering of Carol Anne, nor does she seek to make it erotic. “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is determined to retain the horror of the events, above all else…and it does it well.

Nancy Collins’ “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was first published in It Came from the Drive-In (1996), and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, but did not win. The story was republished in the author’s collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000), and Tales out of Dunwich (2005). It has also been released as an ebook: “The Thing from Lover’s Lane: A Mythos Tale” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

“Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price

The professor had been stricken whilst returning from the Newport boat; falling suddenly, as witnesses said, after having been jostled by a nautical-looking negro who had come from one of the queer dark courts on the precipitous hillside which formed a short cut from the waterfront to the deceased’s home in Williams Street.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

The title is a provocation. “Negro” is still more tolerable in American society than the other N-word, but has largely passed out of polite usage, except in some noteworthy relicts like the United Negro College Fund. By selecting this title, the authors are deliberately invoking the specter of Lovecraft’s racism: the cult of Cthulhu in his most seminal story is deliberately multi-ethnic and multiracial, and this brief reference was meant by Lovecraft to imply to readers that a black seaman connected with the cult was responsible for the death of Prof. George Gammell Angell. As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, the title immediately invokes certain elements of Lovecraft’s fiction, prepping the reader for what they are about to read. That “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is going to be concerned strongly with race is reinforced by the opening quotation from Bierce’s sardonic The Devil’s Dictionary (1906):

Negro, n. The pièce de resistance in the American political problem. Representing him by the letter n, the Republicans begin to build their equation thus: “Let n = the white man.” This, however, appears to give an unsatisfactory solution.
—Ambrose Bierce

The authors know what they were doing. Both Peter Cannon and Robert M. Price were prominent in Lovecraft studies, having published many essays on Lovecraft, his fiction, and surrounding matters since the 1970s. “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is  included among parodies and pastiches, it is probably closer to the mark to describe it as a lengthy literary in-joke, a variant account of the events of “The Call of Cthulhu” from the perspective of James F. Morton, a real-life friend of Lovecraft, and notable as an early member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and author of the tract The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906).

The blend of fact, fiction, and metafiction is probably lost on anyone that isn’t a terminal Lovecraft aficionado. In a strange turn of events, Inspector Legrasse and Morton end up looking for black sailors that might be connected to or know of the Cthulhu cult—and of course find them:

Legrasse was soon surrounded by a gang of blacks, who muttered menacingly in their dark language while keeping a respectful distance. When the detective asked if they had recently run into another white man who was wise in the ways of Cthulhu, or “Tulu,” eyes rolled. “That thing there’s bad magic, suh,” one of the Negroes said. “You best done throw it in deh harbor.”
—Cannon & Price, “Nautical-Looking Negroes” in Forever Azathoth (2011) 206

The prose of “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is deliberately done as a pastiche, mimicking the form of Lovecraft’s style (without the amateur error of turning purple prose ultraviolet with an overabundance of adjectives); Price in particular has made something of a hobby of pulp pastiches, or original stories which read in the same vein as pulp fiction from the 1920s and 30s. While there is a commendable skill involved in capturing the correct tone, this approach has its drawbacks: notably, the stereotype-laden portrayals of non-white characters which were acceptable in original 1930s fiction are generally not acceptable today—nor should they be.  Charles Saunders wrote of pulp authors like Lovecraft:

It is true that these men were products of their time, as we are products of ours. This argument can explain the racism of the Thirties. But it doesn’t justify it.
—Charles Saunders, Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature

Saunders was specifically taking aim at L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, two latter-day writers of pulp-ish fair, including Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories and the Cthulhu Mythos, and decried their use of racist pulp stereotypes as throwbacks unconscionable in contemporary fiction.

The same argument applies to Cannon & Price. It is one thing to present the characters within a story as racist, especially when set in a historical period. George Macdonald Frasier’s Flashman is rather notorious for his authentic depiction of bigotry during the Victorian era, for example, but these are presented as the main character’s prejudices, not as unfiltered truth. There is some of that in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” when the character of Legrasse observes “fine-looking Nordic fellows, tall and fair,” or when Captain Baker dismisses a sect of the Cthulhu cult as “reserved for coloreds.”

The depiction of the actual black seamen is more problematic, at least on a surface level. The dialectic speech may be an example of staying authentic to Lovecraft: few of his black characters have speaking roles, but in “Medusa’s Coil” Sophonisba speaks in a very stereotypical Southern black dialect, and Lovecraft imitated such speech in some of his letters. Epithets like “dark language” and the general superstitious characterization of the black seamen are unnecessary, but deliberate echoes of Lovecraftian pulp. If there’s any faint praise to damn the authors with, it is that the black seamen do not appear to be part of the actual Cthulhu cult (though aware of it), nor are they in any way malicious.

A large chunk of the second part of the story is given over to a religious schism regarding points of doctrine within the cult—Price’s fingerprints, as a theologian and Doctor of Philosophy in theology and the New Testament, with a penchant for dragging (and dragging on) religion in his Mythos fiction—which is intimately bound up with an obscure piece of Mythos-lore, and serves as a tie between “The Call of Cthulhu” and an earlier Lovecraft tale, “Polaris”. This story contains elements of the Yellow Peril fiction prevalent around the turn of the century:

That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest.

Cannon & Price chose in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” to leave out the dog whistle and say the quiet part out loud: the “good-looking Nordics” (i.e. white people) explicitly are the Lomarians, out to defeat the Inutos (literally the Inuit in this case). The connection is helped by the fact that in “The Call of Cthulhu” the original Cthulhu idol is stolen from “a singular tribe or cult of degenerate Esquimaux”; equating these with the Inutos has a sort of logic to it, from a Mythos scholar point of view, but the implications are rather ugly…the Lomarians commit genocide against the Inutos’ women and children…and the joke is only slightly turned on its head at the end of Legrasse’s statement, when the cartoon cannibal cooking pot comes out.

It is difficult to say how much of this race-baiting was deliberately intentional for the purpose of parody. Certainly, when the “Lomarians” opt to sacrifice Inspector Legrasse under the rationale that he “is of Mediterranean descent,” they are clearly following the lines of 1920s racialism rather than some obscure point of Mythos lore. The title and opening quotation are a knowing wink that says they are aware of what they are doing by directly incorporating and addressing some of the elements of racism in Lovecraft’s fiction into their parody. The issue is lampshaded with a return to Morton’s point of view at the end:

I have, for example, campaigned for Negro rights all my life. The treatment of these poor suffering people is a national disgrace, from the stereotypical darkies of pulp fiction to publicly sanctioned lynchings. They are human beings like the rest of us, and it is only through the sheerest ignorance and the blindest prejudice that so many otherwise intelligent and decent white folk view them as inferior—like my writer friend in Providence, with whom I’ve exchanged some heated words on the subject. If only they would get to know educated Negroes as I have, then they might regard the whole matter differently. But I’m afraid I’ll be long gone before there’s any real progress on this front, so ingrained is the antipathy to the black race in the American character.
—Cannon & Price, “Nautical-Looking Negroes” in Forever Azathoth (2011) 225-226

In the penultimate chapter, Cannon & Price decide to bring it yet one more thread from Lovecraft: Swami Chandraputra from “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (a collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price). The appearance of the “Swami” is more in the way of a knowing wink than any comment on race; readers familiar with Lovecraft & Price’s tale might recall that it was one of the only Lovecraft stories where race prejudice was explicitly made an ugly, negative thing. Yet the encounter sets up the final and concluding pun, as a black merchant marine ends a story which an encounter with a black seaman began.

The nature of parody is exaggeration for comic effect; “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is firmly parody, although getting the layers of jokes requires a fair familiarity with Lovecraft’s life, fiction, and prejudices. For the jokes they hope to achieve, the authors tread a very fine line, seeking to exaggerate and emphasize the ridiculousness of racism both in Lovecraft’s fiction and in the real world. Yet to achieve the effect Cannon & Price play up to pulp stereotypes of race and racism. It is a tricky proposition: humor is an effective weapon to point out the illogical aspects of racism, but the danger is always that someone won’t get the joke, and a straight reading of the text up to Morton’s final statement can be pretty ugly, including as it does fantasy Aryanism, stereotypical racist depictions of black people, the genocide of a village of indigenous Greenlanders by blond conquerors with superior weaponry, and two white men being cannibalized by an indigenous tribe.

This is probably why in the final chapter James F. Morton is brought in to lampshade that the preceding stereotypes were stereotypes, to clue readers in that this is a joke rather than the throwback literature Charles Saunder decried. Morton the character is, as he was in real life, one of those individuals that turned out to be on the right side of history. His lack of prejudice saves him from the same fate as Legrasse and the self-declared Men of Lomar. It is through the character of Morton that Lovecraft’s original insinuation about a “nautical-looking Negro” is transformed into the “Nautical-Looking Negroes” of the title: what began as a discriminatory remark in “The Call of Cthulhu” ultimately inspires a white man and a black man treating each other as equals.

As a comment on racism and pulp fiction, Cannon & Price’s “Nautical-Looking Negroes” is an effort through fiction to address the issue of Lovecraft’s racism, and especially how that racism is expressed in his Mythos fiction. The story is notably a refutation, rather than a defense, of Lovecraft’s prejudices, both explicitly through Morton’s statement in the final chapter and through the exaggerated racism intended to highly the silliness of the beliefs. How effective this is arguable: anyone deep enough into reading the Cthulhu Mythos to get most of the jokes has already been faced with Lovecraft’s prejudices repeatedly.

It is worth asking the question whether half of the writing team, Dr. Robert M. Price, would have collaborated on the same story today. In recent years, Price has been more vocal regarding his conservative political views, which have shifted farther to the right and included opposition to the Black Lives Matter movement, controversial views on Islam (which features in one or two of his Mythos stories), and the keynote speech that Price gave at NecronomiCon 2015, which included the comments:

Lovecraft envisioned not only the threat that science posed to our anthropomorphic smugness, but also the ineluctable advance of the hordes on non-western anti-rationalism to consume a decadent, Euro-centric West.

Superstition, barbarism and fanaticism would sooner or later devour us. It appears now that we’re in the midst of this very assault. The blood lust of jihadists threatens Western Civilization and the effete senescent West seems all too eager to go gently into that endless night. Our centers of learning have converted to power politics and an affirmative action epistemology cynically redefining truth as ideology. Logic is undermined by the new axiom of the ad hominem. If white males formulated logic, then logic must be regarded as an instrument of oppression.

Lovecraft was wrong about many things, but not, I think, this one. It’s the real life horror of Red Hook.

Price’s conservative turn is compounded by the partisan politics of the United States of America in recent years, where conservative politics especially have become a haven for white supremacists, dog-whistle racism, and the politics of hatred and fear. Even if his intellectual position were unassailable, equating his position with one of Lovecraft’s most xenophobic, anti-immigrant stories, with its shades of Yellow Peril, should have given Price pause. The prejudices of the 1920s led to outright discrimination, including the Immigration Act of 1924 (the “Asian Exclusion Act”), and contributed to the Japanese Interment Camps during World War II.

It is not to lambaste Robert M. Price or to attempt to offer a full rebuttal of his views that I bring this matter up: the point is that the views of the author can influence and find expression through their fiction, and that knowledge of the author and their views can in turn influence how readers interpret and appreciate their fiction. This is as true with Lovecraft and his views on race in “The Call of Cthulhu” as it is for Price’s views in “Nautical-Looking Negroes.” Price’s more vocal political opinions force a re-evaluation of his Mythos fiction.

In this specific case of collaboration, it is helpful to look at each writer’s contribution to the final piece. Peter Cannon writes in his introduction to Forever Azathoth:

A two-page outline by Robert M. Price helped inspire “Nautical-Looking Negroes,” a sequel to “The Call of Cthulhu.” Bob’s theological musings, in particular his book Beyond Born Again: Toward Evangelical Maturity, were also an influence. In addition, I owe Bob thanks for suggesting Captain Baker’s exhortation to the crew of The Polestar before their attack on the fiendish Inutos. This novelette is my attempt at an old-fashioned pulp adventure tale, complete with racist white males […]

“Nautical-Looking Negroes” was first published in Lore #5 (1996) under the byline of Peter Cannon and Robert M. Price. It was collected in Cannon’s Forever Azathoth (Tartarus Press, 2005), which collection was reprinted by Subterranean Press (2011) and Hippocampus Press (2012). Cannon and Price have written dozens of Mythos stories between them, and previously collaborated on “The Curate of Temphill” (1993).


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