Derleth: Hawk…and Dove (1997) by Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky

He was known for his prolific writing production—at one time 10,000 words a day. He was also bisexual.

This book moves through Derleth’s many talents, from a five-year-old’s first reading experience to the man’s present statue as the only classic author to come out of the 20th century. It speaks eloquently of the hellish life endured by homosexuals in a society where their kind of living was confined to the boundaries of “closet” walls.
—Back cover copy of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove

Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky was a Wisconsinite, a charter member of the August Derleth Society, and one of the founders of the Rhinelander School of Arts where Derleth was engaged as a Writer in Residence. By her own account, this book—so far the only full biography of August Derleth’s life—was the result of 25-30 years of research, including interviews with family and friends and reference to Derleth’s private journals and correspondence, archived with his other papers at the Wisconsin Historical Society.

Before going into the particulars of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove, it’s important to place Derleth’s life in its proper context. He was born in 1909 in Sauk City, Wisconsin; sold his first story, “Bat’s Belfry” to Weird Tales at age 16, and from that point on never looked back at the writing game. He was a regular at Weird Tales, but prolific beyond that pulp magazine and that genre; a friend and correspondent of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, E. Hoffmann Price and others, when Lovecraft died in 1937 it was Derleth and his friend Donald Wandrei that conspired to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters in hardcover. When they could not convince an established publisher to do it, they founded their own small press. Arkham House would, for the next fifty years, be one of the most important publishers of weird fiction, fantastic poetry, and Lovecraft-related materials in the world.

Derleth had a literary life outside of Arkham House. He became an important regional writer with the Sac Prairie Saga, a series of novels and short stories about his native Wisconsin and especially his home tome of Sauk City and the adjacent Prairie du Sac. For mystery fiction he created the detective characters Judge Peck and Solar Pons, the latter a deliberate pastiche of Sherlock Holmes, who remains popular. Beyond that, he wrote nonfiction histories and biographies, children’s books (including a series for which the authors received the Apostolic Blessing of Pope John XXIII) and poetry, articles and reviews. Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1938, Derleth used the money to bind his collection of newspaper comics; those archives are now an important source for comic strips that may otherwise have been lost to time.

Much of this would have been opaque to even dedicated fans and readers of Arkham House. Derleth was a capable self-promoter, as his volumes, August Derleth: Twenty Years of WritingAugust Derleth: Twenty-Five Years of Writing, and August Derleth: Thirty Years of Writing attest, but he rarely wrote publicly about his marriage, love life, children, or the full details of his business. He had a diverse fanbase, but their interests typically appear narrow: the weird fans had little interest in his Sac Prairie saga, the Solar Pons fans little interest in his poetry, etc. So while there was no little interest in Derleth as a writer, bookman, publisher, and individual, there were few works that could—or even tried—to encompass all of the man and his range of writing. Those few works were mostly published by the August Derleth Society, which continues to work today to keep his writing in print and his memory alive.

Derleth’s death in 1971 saw an opening up of both Lovecraft scholarship and wider dissemination of the Mythos. During his time at the helm of Arkham House, Derleth had strongly claimed proprietary interest on Lovecraft’s fiction and letters, assuming effective (if not legal) control from Lovecraft’s literary executor R. H. Barlow. Derleth limited the ability of others to publish Mythos and Lovecraft-related works beyond Arkham House’s control (see the C. Hall Thompson affair and the publication of The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis). Without him, and with the 12-year lawsuit between Arkham House co-founder Donald Wandrei and Derleth’s estate over the rights to the Lovecraft material, Mythos fiction began to proliferate. Derleth himself became criticized posthumously, both for his actions as editor and publisher, and for his Mythos fiction; Richard L. Tierney’s “The Derleth Mythos” (1973) was a watershed moment that emphasized the critical pushback against Derleth among Lovecraft studies.

Yet for all this, there was still relatively little on Derleth as an individual. The August Derleth Society Newsletter and volumes such as Remembering Derleth (1988), Return to Derleth (1993), and August Harvest (1994) are memoirs and essays by those who knew him, but approach hagiography at points. While valuable in their own right, there was for some decades after Derleth’s death no one willing or able to do the kind of initial work comparable to L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: A Biography (1975).

Not until Dorothy M. Grobe Litersky, who had been gathering material for the book since before Derleth’s death, finally wrote and published it.

Her book is, even from the most generous reading, far from perfect. Readers interested in a detailed account of his writing career, the development and publication schedule of Arkham House and its imprints, even his friendship with Lovecraft will be disappointed. There are no real revelations on these aspects of his life. It is not that Litersky ignores these things, but her interest is more focused on Derleth’s personal life.

As Derleth’s biographer, I have, to the best of my ability, tried to present as accurate a profile as possible. He wanted a portrayal of the whole man, free of the closet of lies he had been forced to hide in throughout his lifetime.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove ix

While written without malice, Litersky’s “warts and all” approach to Derleth’s life includes a number of statements and assertions that are serious eye-openers to those who had only known Derleth through his fiction, essays on Lovecraft, and introductions to Arkham House books. Some of these are unequivocally true; many are simply impossible to verify without more information—and Litersky’s citations are minimal, often frustrating to work with, missing dates or page numbers, and typically take the form of “A. D. Journal” or “Robert Marx to A.D.” (ibid. 130); dates and page numbers are rare. Where they do exist, they are almost invariably accurate; there is every evidence that while she had access she was drawing directly from Derleth’s correspondence. However, the citations are still sparse and often lacking critical information, making it difficult to verify the contents.

One example of an event that we can confirm:

A group of about fifty young people converging upon the Place of Hawks on an evening in mid-October, 1948, included a precocious fourteen-year-old beauty who had made up her mind a year earlier that she was going to marry August Derleth.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 113

August Derleth’s marriage to Sandra Winters in 1953, which resulted in two children (April and Walden Derleth) and ended in divorce in 1959 is a matter of public record. They became engaged when she was 16 and still attending high school, and married shortly after she turned 18 in 1953, when Derleth was 44 years old (Rhinelander Daily News, 7 Feb 1953). The relationship appears to have been sexual even before they were married—and that Derleth was far from head-over-heels in love with the apparently infatuated teenager:

Oh, yes, I would not deny that Sandra has done me a lot of good. Not just making love to her, Sandra herself. Of course, she is sharp enough to know that, and I think that in this lies the ultimate dissolution of the affair, unless an accident makes it necessary for us to be married. For, being young, she is entirely likely, even with her mother’s advice, to take me for granted, and that might well be fatal. She has been frank enough to say that she intended all along that I should ultimately need her more than she needs me, and, while she intends to marry me, she intends also to have as much of her cake and eat much of it too, as possible. That never works, manifestly. But whatever takes place, it is certain that I have already benefited a great deal, and all the clothes and jewelry I’ve bought her won’t balance my own benefits.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 18 Aug 1949

Litersky’s account of the marriage goes into further detail, but there remains much unspoken about the entire relationship. The biographer never cites Sandra’s version of events; she appears to have relied entirely on Derleth’s accounts, despite the fact that the former Mrs. Derleth was still alive. There are no interviews with or letters from Sandra that might shed light on her side of the story. Derleth is apparently the sole source of all of the lurid details (her affairs, his affairs, the nude photography, the surprise pregnancy, etc.), as filtered through Litersky’s gloss of Derleth’s letters and journals.

The issue of statutory rape is hardly discussed. Sandra Winters as portrayed in the book is described as sexually precocious, and it beggars belief that a girl at fourteen could seduce a 40-year-old man. Derleth had to know what he was getting into, and it feels weird that in the context of the book, more attention is not given to how the difference in ages was felt by both the immediate family or the community at large, or to how this reflected in the wider context of Derleth’s personal life. This is characteristic of Litersky’s style throughout the book; she presents the events as a fait accompli, not laying any moral judgment on Derleth’s flaws or foibles, but her portrait of others is colored by Derleth’s own perceptions—they become supporting characters, sympathetic when Derleth loves them and flawed or monstrous when he turns against them.

How reliable Litersky’s information is remains an open question. The book is not without errors of fact, and there are certainly instances where error of interpretation seem likely. The nature and paucity of the citations makes it difficult to assess the overall accuracy of the text, or even of specific sections. As a researcher, the book must be considered more as a guideline than a source of concrete data. Each instance has to be independently verified as much as possible.

That being said, very few of the claims in Derleth: Hawk…and Dove claims appear to be entirely baseless. If the interested reader can track down Litersky’s original sources or supplement them with other primary materials, usually there is at least some evidence to support them. To take one example:

Years later after Derleth’s death Sara told her story to a class of young students and reporters of her walk in the woods with August. She was relaxing on a blanket when he proceeded to discard all his clothes except his socks and to dance under the trees. She said she was shocked and embarrassed and pretended to be asleep.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 206

While somewhat inexplicable to Sara (and Litersky), a letter from Derleth to Lovecraft may suggest that nudism was a common practice for him, at least when the weather permitted: “I am brown as a berry, and have managed to rouse some indignation by being a one-man nudist colony on the hills only a  third of a mile across the river from the village” (Essential Solitude 632–33). So while we cannot say that this event actually happened, we can at least say that there is evidence that Derleth may have at least engaged in this behavior at some point. The anecdote is at least plausible, even if it isn’t provable.

A more complicated matter is Litersky’s assertion that August Derleth was bisexual, especially that he maintained long-term sexual relationships with both men and women. For reasons of privacy, Litersky does not name all of Derleth’s sexual partners outright; even her citations in this regard appear more circumspect than usual. This makes it especially difficult to verify; and there are no published letters where Derleth specifically states he has ever engaged in a homosexual relationship.

The importance of this aspect of Derleth’s character is arguable; on the one hand, it would make him probably the first bisexual author in the Cthulhu Mythos, and perhaps lend insight into readings of his fiction. Certainly it would cast some of Derleth’s occasional homophobic comments into new perspective, e.g.:

Barlow is I am sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the later minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead.
—August Derleth to Donald Wollheim, 21 Mar n.d. [1937]

Could this be performative homophobia from a closeted bisexual? Or the genuine mild prejudice of an individual who, regardless of their sexuality, conformed to early 20th-century cultural norms regarding gender behavior and sexuality? Hard to tell. But the possibility of Derleth being on the LGBTQ+ spectrum is interesting, and deserves a deeper look.

When the subject turned to sex, August stated, “…I have no inhibitions, had few all my life sexually, that if I wanted to masturbate, I did so without guilt; if I wished to make love to a member of my own sex, likewise; if I wished to make love to a woman, again, likewise, the only condition being that sexual pleasure must rise from love, or at least a deep and genuine affection….”
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 211

Here, Litersky is apparently relaying a snippet from a private conversation, as no other source is cited, so no separate confirmation is possible. Some of her statements in this line are even more unreliable; for example when she wrote:

The name Mara was mentioned only casually. He’s in love with her, the correspondent realized suddenly. Her fingers, holding the letter, felt a strange vibration. She met Mara a few years later, and had another shock. Mara was not a young lady, as she’d assumed. It wasn’t until after August’s death, a decade later, that she’d discovered her psychic flash had been 100% correct. August was bisexual and was indeed in love with Mara.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 180

“Mara” was a name used in some of Derleth’s poetry and fiction, notably in an eponymous 1948 ghost story about the posthumous an unfaithful female lover; the volume of poetry This Wound (1962), which includes love poems, is dedicated to “Mara.” So while there was apparently a Mara (probably a nickname of a pseudonym), there is no indication Mara was male—also but not enough information for positive identification.

August Derleth never admits to a homosexual liaison or relationship in his published letters, but he did discuss sexuality in his correspondence, and there are several letters which are suggestive of the idea that he might be open to it, at least intellectually:

I must confess, that though I am steeped in abnormal sex, having studied all kinds of perverts at first hand, the suspicion of necrophilia in A Rose for Emily never once entered my mind. [. . .] Here is a woman starved for something—what is it, love perhaps? Let us assume it is. But she knows nothing about it. Love to her means a possession, a having. What she had come to regard as hers seems to be too independent. She kills. Thus, she keeps, she possesses, she loves. Necrophilia may or may not enter into this relation; it’s a minor point to me, since my own experience with people in this existence has led me to look on such things as part and parcel of life, though I am still conservative enough to be horrified by them, deeply. Yet I would be the first to jump tot the defense of a necrophiliac, a homosexual, &c., largely because I know that so often these poor creatures are incapable of helping themselves, have had their nerve systems tortured and twisted permanently from birth.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 9 Nov 1931, ES 406

I can understand your detestation of sex irregularities in life as violations of harmony and I here fully agree with you. I had previously misunderstood you to mean protestation from a basis of morals, and on this basis I would have stood squarely opposed to you. I have known and still know many people who are sexually irregular, both homosexual men and women, and except for three cases out of perhaps 21, I have always found these people highly intellectual, fully aware of what they were doing, and in all cases quite helpless. Speaking perspectively and in the abstract, I could as easily conceive myself entering upon a monogamous homosexual relation as a heterosexual one—though perhaps practice would change that pointofview. To quibble about mere words, I should not say that perverts necessarily lived inartistically.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 14 Feb 1933, ES 543

The idea that Derleth had an interest in the psychology of sex is supported by evidence he took out a subscription (under a pseudonym) to ONE Institute Quarterly, the journal of homosexual studies, in 1962. He would discuss the issue with others besides Lovecraft as well:

As for homosexuals—my only feeling is that I abhor promiscuity and I dislike violently to see children troubled; but this holds true also for heterosexuals, so there is actually no prejudice. Consenting behavior between adults is not offensive to me. But I do detest the flamboyant homo, the almost professional gay. To tell the truth I don’t know many real homos, though; I do know quite a number of bisexuals, and I never found one offensive, indeed, many of them strike me as brilliant, and most of them appear to be limited to one lasting affection, and are not promiscuous, that is one woman, and one man—oddly, there seems to be no conflict despite what the head-shrinkers insist  upon.
—August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 24 May 1966, Letters to Arkham 277-278

The subject comes up more than once in the Derleth-Campbell letters, and it is this sort of substantial quote which perhaps could have lent authority to Derleth: Hawk…and Dove. Therein lies what is arguably the single major issue with the book, beyond any question of Litersky’s style, sourcing, or quality of her analysis:

Missing Journal dates and dates of letters to and from August Derleth resulted from biographer’s incomplete notes, and a loss of actual copies of those items, journal entries and letters, beyond her control. When her lawyers accidentally discovered that the failure of Derleth’s lawyer to renew copyrights on all of Augie’s works, as requested by the U. S. Copyright offices, and informed April and Walden Derleth of the fact, the children not only moved quickly to remedy the mistake, they froze the Derleth papers in the Wisconsin State Historical Society’s Museum archives to prevent anyone access to them until the year 2020. Only then will it be possible to verify some of the material in Chapter 22, and elsewhere throughout the book.
—Litersky, Derleth: Hawk…and Dove 201-202

This is essentially the claim for why the book is not cited better than it is. Unfortunately, like everything else in the book, it is impossible to take Litersky at face value. It is true that there are some restrictions on access to portions of the Derleth archive, as described in the Administrative/Restriction Information; not all of the details quite align with Litersky’s version of events given above, but circumstances can change over time—or perhaps she misunderstood or misrepresented the reasons for the sealing. We don’t know.

It also isn’t clear why Litersky chose to publish this through the National Writers Press—a vanity press—rather than the August Derleth Society; one can imagine the content might have given the ADS pause. To say that Litersky’s assertions or interpretations of August Derleth’s life are “contested” or “controversial” would be inaccurate; most scholars don’t engage with Litersky’s biography at all. In part, this is more a reflection of a failure of the scope of Derleth: Hawk…and Dove than the scholarly question of its scholarship or distribution.

Readers who want to learn more about Derleth and Arkham House or Derleth and the Cthulhu Mythos will pick up John Haefele’s August Derleth Redux (2010) or A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos (2014); those interested in his Sac Prairie writings will pick up Evelyn Schroth’s The Derleth Saga (1979). For those who want more information on the man himself, his volumes of letters with H. P. Lovecraft and Ramsey Campbell are the major primary sources available in print.

In many ways, Litersky’s biography is characteristic of many first biographies of authors, in that it is only a beginning. Derleth: Hawk…and Dove is not the last word in Derleth studies; it is at best the start of the serious study of his life and work, and any subsequent biographer of Derleth will be forced to read Litersky and tackle the errors and weaknesses in her approach if they hope to produce anything that can surpass her work. Such a biography, when and if it written, can at least take advantage of sources that Litersky herself did not have available: the published letters, digital scans of unpublished correspondence, databases to help track down errant Derleth publications and criticism—and it would be worthwhile to see such a book published.

August Derleth was an important figure in the life and literary afterlife of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many other writers. His vast body of work and his personal life are of interest in and of themselves, but he also touched on the lives of so many others—it was largely through his hard work and diligence that Arkham House became a legend, and that Lovecraft, the Mythos, and even weird fiction are still known and loved today. Whatever his personal flaws and foibles, and Derleth was certainly no saint, the ripples his life left on the world continue to expand and touch others. 


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

“Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins

Necronomicon,
freely translated, means the types or masks of death,
a museum of the most fabulous abominations and perversions.
The famous writer H. P. Lovecraft
was the first to mention this work,
in his Cthulhu mythology.
Many science fiction and fantasy writers have repeatedly mention this work
but it is only now, in
Giger’s Necronomicon,
that it has become reality for the first time.

—Opening statement to H. R. Giger’s Necronomicon (1992 edition)

In 1975, Swiss artist H. R. Giger, Dan O’Bannon, and Ronald Shusett were all working on Jodowrosky’s adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, but the production fell apart. In the aftermath, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett would revive a script titled Memory, which then became a screenplay, at first under the working title Star Beast, which was eventually changed to the final title: Alien.

In 1977, as Star Wars blew up the box office (and showed the potential for science fiction films, so that 20th Century Fox greenlit Alien for production), Giger’s first major print collection of his work was published. Necronomicon borrowed its title from Lovecraft’s fictional tome, although none of the artworks within are explicitly based off of or depict anything in his fiction; some of the artwork came from the aborted production of Jodorowsy’s Dune.  A copy of the book made its way to Ridley Scott, who was directing the film Alien (1979) (then under the working title “Star Beast”); Giger was brought on board the production to add his unique aesthetic sense to the design of sets and the eponymous extraterrestrial xenomorph itself. Dan O’Bannon would go on to direct The Resurrected (1991), an adaptation of “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” and is sometimes claimed to have been inspired by Lovecraft in writing the script for Alien—although as with Giger, nothing explicitly Lovecraft-related made it into the final film.

The slightness of the connection between Lovecraft and the Alien franchise may be one reason that critics consider Alien “Lovecraftian,” praising its atmosphere and approach rather than any direct connection. As the film Alien grew into a franchise with sequels such as Aliens (1986) and licensed comic books from Dark Horse (starting in 1988), more and more creators were drawn into the expanding mythosand at least a couple of them were keen on a more definite connection, if only for a bit of fun.

“Elder Gods” is a 16-page black-and-white comic story written by Nancy Collins, pencils by Leif Jones, inked by John Stokes, and lettered by Clem Robbins. It originally appeared in the one-shot Aliens Special (1997). Taking its lead from Aliens and Aliens 3, the script takes the reader to an off-world colony…but with a twist.

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Yes, Nancy Collins penned a tongue-in-cheek parody set in the Aliens franchise, where “Horace Payne Loveless” stands in for “Howard Phillips Lovecraft.” However, it is a loving parody. “Father Lumley” is a reference to contemporary Mythos writer Brian Lumley, and he inherited the mantle from “Father August” who was inspired by August Derleth, “Brother Ramsey” inspired by Ramsey Campbell; Loveless’ stories include “The Sign of Tulitu” (“The Call of Cthulhu”) and “The Abomination from Ipswich” (“The Dunwich Horror”), and so on and so forth. These are all Easter eggs for fans to find in what is otherwise a very competent and workable Aliens sci-fi- horror comic; less of a distraction and more that little something extra.

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The art works. “Elder Gods” is one of the few Aliens comics to never be colored, and the stark black-and-white works very well—Leif Jones has always had a talent for the chiaroscuro effect, and with Stokes’ inks they seem to just drink in the light from the page. The symbols of the cult throughout are reminiscent of the magical signs in the George Hay and Simon Necronomicons, but the Giger influence is also clear. Everybody knew what they were doing on this one, and it shows.

“Elder Gods” might be read as a stab at the “cult” of Lovecraft’s readers, or at least the occultists that take the creations seriously. However, there is no ironic twist, no comeuppance where the cultists realize that they’ve made an error. On the contrary, blind as they are to the realities and determined as they may be to try and fit what they see into their worldview…this is still an Aliens comic. What do you think is going to happen?

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Horror franchises, whether they be the Cthulhu Mythos or Aliens or whatnot, depend on the the audience knowing more than the characters in the work itself. While there can be plenty of surprises in store, part of the build-up of excitement and a sense of apprehension is recognizing what is going on before the characters on the page or on the screen. A sore throat by itself isn’t scary—but in an Aliens comic… It’s not a question of whether or not the xenomorph is going to appear. It’s when and how. The appeal of these stories isn’t necessarily in bloody bones and grue, but in the million variations on the established concept. Adding a Lovecraftian cult to the mix is definitely a new one.

The closing pages of the story are reminiscent of the transition from Alien to Aliens, where old sins and old threats have been forgotten, disbelieved. That is very Lovecraftian too. Lovecraftian protagonists tend to demand proof before they believe in the unseen things that challenge their worldview; cultists are more accepting, but still try and fit strange alien entities into a very limited, very human perspective. The reality of the xenomorphs is beyond both of them…and isn’t that true of the Alien franchise as a whole? It was a somewhat similar idea expressed in “At the Left Hand of Nothing” (2016) by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, that the cults of Cthulhu and what not project human attributes and preconceptions onto entities that were never human to begin with.

Like a lot of the Dark Horse Aliens comics, this one has little lasting impact. It’s a little piece of a bigger franchise, often forgotten and overlooked—although it is worth pointing out that the idea of a xenomorph cult is not unique to “Elder Gods,” and who knows but that the story may have played its little part in seeding the idea further.

“Elder Gods” was first published in Aliens Special (1997), and has been reprinted in the Aliens Omnibus Volume 6 (2009) and is available as a digital comic from Dark Horse. Nancy Collins’ other Mythos fiction includes “The Land of the Reflected Ones” (1995) by Nancy A. Collins and “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).

“An Imp of Aether” (1997) by W. H. Pugmire

To ye memory of August William Derleth
—original dedication

“Lovecraft Country” was the name given to that fictional setting in New England where so many of his stories were set, or at least referred to. The Miskatonic River that flowed through Arkham and gave is name to the university there down to Innsmouth, Dunwich and Kingsport—all based on real places that Lovecraft visited in Massachusetts, but occupying an unreal estate in the mind; Lovecraft country is a character itself in stories like “The Dunwich Horror.”

Some subsequent writers in the Mythos have carved out their own geographies; Ramsey Campbell, on the suggestion of August Derleth, set his early Lovecraftian tales in a fictional Severn Valley with towns like Brichester and Goatwood, which continues to be developed today. W. H. Pugmire set his Sesqua Valley in the Pacific Northwest, and populated the place shadowed by the mountains with his own strange creations, including the poet William Davis Manly and the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams.

In this story, set in the shadows of Sesqua Valley, Pugmire pays homage to August Derleth.

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem, but upon further study discovered that it was a prayer to something called Cthugha. Known as ‘the Burning One.’
—W. H. Pugmire, Tales of Sesqua Valley 39

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm, but upon further study discovered that it is a prayer to something called Cthugha. Supposedly a fire element. You know the idiotic notion that Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law or understanding. Utterly absurd; but in this case, there seems some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 94-95

We thought at first that it was some kind of poem or unholy psalm; but with further study we discovered it to be a prayer to something called Cthugha, supposedly a fire elemental. You know the idiotic notion that the Great Old Ones represent terrestrial elements, as if these cosmic creatures could be molded by corporeal law. Bah! However, in this case, there seems to be some sustainment.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 129

As a writer, Pugmire was a tinkerer; many of his stories show the result of revision between printings, so that while the title, plot, and overall characters are the same, the text in each publication is different—sometimes slightly, sometimes markedly. The revised texts tend to be cleaner, in general; the result of looking back at a work from a decade ago and tidying it up after one’s younger self.

In the February 1933 issue of Weird Tales, Donald Wandrei published “The Fire Vampires”; a tale of the 24th century involving the fiery alien entity Fthaggua; and the idea of elementals in the Mythos dates back to Derleth’s “The Thing That Walked On The Wind” (Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, Jan 1933). Wandrei’s tale was not explicitly of the Cthulhu Mythos, although later writers adopted it, or elements from it, into the Mythos; Derleth’s was deliberate pastiche. After Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei came together to form Arkham House to publish Lovecraft’s fiction and letters—and Derleth himself continued to publish Mythos pastiches.

The “elemental theory” as a paradigm for the Cthulhu Mythos (as Derleth called Lovecraft’s artificial mythology) as a whole came after Lovecraft’s death, detailed by fan Francis T. Laney in “The Cthulhu Mythology” in The Acolyte #2 (1942), where he noted:

The fire gods were not covered by Lovecraft, so it is up to other writers to fill in this section of the Mythos. (8)

August Derleth was paying attention. He wrote to Laney, asking him to expand the article for a further book of Lovecraft’s fiction—which became “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Glossary” in Beyond The Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House). This expanded article includes mention of a fire elemental, Cthugha, created by Derleth:

I’m certainly agog to read “The Dweller in Darkness.” Cthugha will certainly fill a gaping hole; I well remember how disgusted I was when I found the “fire department” had been completely neglected. I’m not trying to appear conceited, but by any chance did my mention of this in my article start you off on this tack, or was it just a coincidence?
—Francis T. Laney to August Derleth, 29 Mar 1943

Whether it was Laney that inspired Derleth, or two fans arriving at the same conclusion, Derleth determined to “fill the gap” and embraced the elemental theory wholeheartedly, making it his own (and borrowing elements of Wandrei’s Fthaggua in the process). As it happened, publication of fiction didn’t always go in order—the story that effectively introduced Cthugha was “The Dweller in Darkness” (Weird Tales Nov 1944), but the first story that saw mention of Cthugha in print was “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Mar 1944), later titled “The House on Curwen Street.”

Derleth’s conception of the Mythos did not long survive him; Richard L. Tierney famously exploded the idea in “The Derleth Mythos” (1972), beginning a period when fans and scholars seriously re-assessed what Lovecraft did and did not write, and interest increased in textually accurate versions of Lovecraft’s fiction—but selective elements of Derleth’s Mythos fiction, such as Cthugha, were adopted by others.

Hence, Pugmire’s dedication.

This is a story with a nod-and-a-wink toward Mythos fans who can pat themselves on the back that they know about Derleth and the elemental theory and can scoff at such notions along with the sorcerer Simon Gregory Williams. And yet…that is just the beginning of the story, the set-up. That is Pugmire laying the groundwork.

Because there is potential in Cthugha, and some of Derleth’s other ideas—and as much as Derleth’s memory was somewhat hounded in latter years because of his flaws as a writer, a businessman, sometimes even as a human being, he was still a good writer, and he promoted and published Lovecraft unceasingly during his life, and there are ideas which he introduced to the Mythos that are worth exploring and expanding on. So Pugmire did.

No, no. It was the fire vampire. You looked too long and deeply into its burning eyes. Your cool silver eyes took in too much of its property, and thus you burn with strange agitation. One born of the valley’s shadow cannot withstand such cosmic brilliance.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 97

No, lad. It was the fire vampire, an essence of the Old One that burns in Fomalhaut. You looked too long, too deeply, into its ember eyes. Your cool silver orbs are slightly scarred, so potent was your engagement with the valet of Cthugha.
—W. H. Pugmire, An Imp of Aether 132-133

Pugmire never shied away from making his creations sensual; but this is a rare story where he plays with gender as a concept. Wilus Shakston (original) or Jacob Wirth (revised) has encountered the old witch of Cthugha…plaited a lock of her hair with his own…and so began a transformation. Whether the transition can be said to be transgender or genderqueer is largely up to the reader to interpret; the nature of the transition is slower and less total than in “The Thing on the Doorstep.” But in a setting where the children of Sesqua Valley seem to be predominantly male, the acquisition of feminine attributes is marked—and not-unwelcomed by Wilus/Jacob.

In an afterword to this story, Pugmire wrote:

In 1995, after my lover’s heroine overdose and death, I began to write a series of Sesqua Valley stories dedicated to deceased members of the Lovecraft Circle. I suppose I was trying to take my mind off personal tragedy by sinking into creativity. It worked quite well, and many of those tales became the core of my first American collection of fiction, Tales of Sesqua Valley, published by my good buddy and fellow author Jeffrey Thomas. With these stories I mentioned breifly the addition to the Mythos created by the gent to whom the story was dedicated. It was a fun wee game, although the results were not stories of importance. The original version of this story had its first appearance in the chapbook that Jeff published in 1997 under his Necropolitan Press imprint; it has been susbtantially rewritten for this edition.
—W. H. Pugmire, Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts 99

Whatever version of the story you read, it is worth reading. Proof that the Mythos can be reimagined and reworked by different hands, and that ideas that had their start in the nigh-forgotten pulp fiction of the 1930s can inspire strange and wondrous things.

“An Imp of Aether” was first published in Tales of Sesqua Valley (1997), it was revised and republished in Sesqua Valley & Other Haunts (2008) and The Tangled Muse (2011); and revised again for publication as the title piece in Pugmire’s posthumous collection An Imp of Aether (2019).


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

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Ghor, Kin-Slayer was conceived in the late 1970s by Johnathan Bacon, editor of Fantasy Crossroads, a popular fanzine during the Robert E. Howard “boom” of that period. At the time Bacon had been presented with an unfinished story by Robert E. Howard, “Genseric’s Son”, which he quickly recognised as having strong possibilities if completed not by one, but a whole series of authors.

Beginning with Fantasy Crossroads in March 1977 Bacon lined up top authors in the fantasy field to each contribute a chapter until the novel would be completed some 17 installments later. Each issue of Fantasy Crossroads would include two or three chapters until the saga was finished. Unfortunately, thouh, after on 12 chapters saw print with the January 1979 issue, Fantasy Crossroads was no more, and for all intents and purposes, Ghor, Kin-Slayer was lost forever.
—Publisher’s Note, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 176

“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” is the sixteenth and penultimate chapter in the saga of Ghor, the round-robin which began with an incomplete story by Robert E. Howard and in time included some of the most prominent names in fantasy and horror—including Karl Edward Wagner, Michael Moorcock, Manly Wade Wellman, Brian Lumley, Frank Belknap Long, Ramsey Campbell, and many others. The only black author was Charles R. Saunders. The only woman was Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Marion Zimmer Bradley had been involved with science fiction & fantasy fandom since the mid-late 1940s, claimed to have met her first husband through the letters pages of Planet Stories, and by the mid-1950s was a published author in her own right, and found particular success in her Darkover series, a science-fantasy sword & sorcery world that takes its inspiration, and some of its names, from Robert W. Chamber’s The King in Yellow (1895), as well as from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (1955). She was also published in Amra, one of the premier Robert E. Howard ‘zines of the 1960s, and became one of the most outspoken and well-known women in science fiction and fantasy, and much of her most popular and celebrated work involved female protagonists and a focus on their points of view and concerns—a rarity in male-dominated fantasy and sword & sorcery at the time. After Ghor, Kin-Slayer, she would go on to edit the long-running Sword and Sorceress anthology series, and find international acclaim with The Mists of Avalon (1983).

The story up until the point that Bradley received it was, like many round-robins, not well-balanced in terms of plot and pacing. Ghor had begun as a James Allison tale;  Howard had written several tales with Allison, most notably “The Valley of the Worm” (Weird Tales Feb 1934) and “The Garden of Fear” (Marvel Tales Jul-Aug 1934). In each of these stories, the crippled Allison in the present day would cast back his mind into previous, more heroic incarnations, to relive the glories of past lives and loves. This literary device allowed Howard to explore different fantasy historical periods and settings—in this case, Howard set the stage of Ghor’s adventures in Vanaheim and Asgard, and so implicitly in the Hyborian Age, making Ghor a contemporary (of sorts) with Conan the Cimmerian.

Whatever initial plot Howard had in mind and never finished, in the hands of other fantasy writers, the Ghor saga got properly weird; involving as it does the Cthulhu Mythos, a prophecy, losing a limb and gaining a magical prosthetic (a la Lludd of the Silver Hand), becoming a werewolf, and gaining an affinity with the Hounds of Tindalos. Old pulpster H. Warner Munn left off the previous chapter with Ghor leaving the Caves of Stygia…

Out of the caves of Stygia, then, with the great river Styx bursting forth at our feet and across the desert; Shanara, still unconscious against my breast, and at my feels the dread Hounds, invisible, only a rustling and a panting and a fleeting brush against my thigh. On, Northward through the night, drawn by the northern stars that flickered cold above us; but even the giant strength that I, James Allison, wielded in those nigh-forgotten days when I was Ghor, kin-slayer and great were-wolf, was waning.
—Marion Zimmer Bradley, Ghor, Kin-Slayer (1997), 152

Despite this being the penultimate chapter, it is really in many ways the wrap-up of the whole preceding saga; Richard Lupoff, who got chapter 17, offers something more along the lines of a postscript or epilogue. So Bradley’s 11-page chapter is, in essence, a short story in itself trying to bring about a satisfying conclusion to whatever threads are left—principally, the three curses Ghor had accumulated—starting with:

[…] Shanara had probably been less than faithful wife to me. Well, I thought, looking at her haggard, ravaged features, for that too she had paid. And indeed in such a world as this, a woman had no choice but to obey whoever held her body; she had become my bride by no less forceful process, and that we had come to love one another was only a single blessing showered on me amid many curses. No; I would not ask Shanara what price she had had to pay for surviving the long ordeals of capture. (ibid. 153)

If the tone seems reminiscent of “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard, it should be remembered that this bit of casual sexism is being filtered through a female fantasy writer, and Bradley is neither entirely unsympathetic to Shanara nor does she ignore the physical and psychological impact of the implied rape. Which includes one of the oldest tropes of body horror, well-familiar to Mythos fans:

For her body was swelling, ripening…and I knew that look. Even her sullenness and the persistent thirst was part of that, and it was not hunger alone set her to seeking the bitter desert herbs as we travelled. Within her breeding body the curse of Gaea was ripening. (ibid. 154)

There is a question of who is the father; and Ghor entertains that it might be his, the sorcerer who kidnapped her, or even “some nameless thing somewhere in the realms of sorcery and evil” (ibid). Ironically, Ghor has no real issues if the child isn’t his; the wild-man’s own family situation being what it was (exposed at birth as an act of infanticide, raised by wolves, killing his own birth-family), he is rather progressive in his determination to adopt Shanara’s kid.

The story skips forward to the birth, and then to the final fulfillment of the curse. Ghor’s story comes full-circle.

In one sense, Bradley had her hands tied: fifteen chapters of increasingly odd sword & sorcery, bringing in everything from the Moorcockian Gods of Law and Chaos to the Cthulhu Mythos—and there were prophecies and curses to wrap up, physical distances to travel to get Ghor back from Stygia to Nemedia and finally in the icy forests where the story started under Robert E. Howard. In another sense, by putting the focus on Shanara and the goddesses who cursed Ghor, by addressing the sexism and realities of sex and family in the Hyborian Age, she makes the chapter her own.

It’s not a bad penultimate chapter by any means. Not something Robert E. Howard was likely to write, but then nothing that any of the other authors had contributed attempted to really pastiche Howard; they all knew better than to try and ape his prose, and they all brought their own ideas to the table while trying to keep the story moving. For fans in 1997 when this was published for the first time, they could likely appreciate that.

Today, readings of Bradley’s fiction tend to be colored by other factors in her life.

Walter Breen was prominent in Darkover fandom. Breen had been convicted of child molestation in 1954 and received a suspended sentence; his continued pederastic activities resulted in his banning from the 1963 Second Sci-Fi Pacificon. This caused an uproar in fandom, with Marion Zimmer Bradley vocal in her defense of Breen, though the actual cause of Breen’s banning was not universally known, and was called the “Boondoggle.” Breen and Bradley would marry in 1964.

In a 1998 deposition, Bradley said she was aware of Breen’s pedophilia and child molestation. They would separate in 1979, although Breen would continue to live on the same street and in Bradley’s employ for the next decade; they would get divorced in 1990. In 1991 he would be sentenced for child molestation, and die in prison in 1994. In 2014, her daughter Moira Greyland came forward to admit that Marion Zimmer Bradley herself had molested children, including her own children. Links to further accounts, and the story as it unfolded, can be read here.

The personal accounts of Marion Zimmer Bradley both as a serial child sex abuser, and as someone that facilitated Breen’s sexual molestation of children, cast a shadow on her fiction. Readers now look for any evidence of predilections which were perhaps not obvious to fans previously—and there are definitely scenes and relationships in Bradley’s work which, in light of these allegations, appear much more skeevy than perhaps they once were.

How do we read “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed,” through this lens? There are, fortunately, no incidents of child sexuality in this story. But the revelation of Bradley’s history of sexual abuse, and her marriage to Breen—how does that reflect on Ghor’s oddly accepting attitudes with regard to Shanara’s pregnancy? Is he actually being weirdly progressive in not caring if the child is his, and supportive of Shanara despite the social ramifications of rape in Hyborian culture—is it at all reflective of Breen and Bradley explicitly condoning and supporting each other in their own extramarital sexual relationships?

There are no good answers for these questions. Many folks, reading this story, would be glad not to have been aware of it at all. In 1967, Roland Barthes published the essay “La mort de l’auteur,” which would have strong and wide-ranging impact on literary criticism. With the death of the author, authorial intent needs no longer be a primary concern of literary criticism; the text can be read and interpreted on its own, apart from the facts of the author’s own life.

A straight reading of the text, with no knowledge of the author, would almost certainly not raise any associations with pedophilia in the reader’s mind. If you take Bradley out of the equation, then “Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” becomes little more than a chapter in a long but not-terribly-great Robert E. Howard fanfiction. The comments on sexism and the Hyborian Age remain, and the story can be ready, studied, critiqued, and enjoyed.

Yet…it is important that Marion Zimmer Bradley was the author, the only female author, in this round-robin. That she choose to address sexism in the Hyborian Age, or at least Ghor’s understanding of it, becomes important—because her male contemporaries in Sword & Sorcery largely didn’t. If you as a reader or critic consider sexism and gender disparity in the field of fantasy fiction important at all, then her presence, as more than mere tokenism, has to count for something.

Marion Zimmer Bradley inspired many. She injured many too.

Marion Zimmer Bradley also wrote a novel with Mythos elements, Witch Hill (1990).


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

“The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) by Stanley C. Sargent

The next January gossips were mildly interested in the fact that “Lavinny’s black brat” had commenced to talk, and at the age of only eleven months.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”

In many ways a spiritual precursor to “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” is one of Stanley C. Sargent’s most reprinted stories—and one of his most radical. It is a story which emerged from many of the ideas of Lovecraft scholarship at the time of its writing: Donald Burleson’s characterization of the Whateley twins fulfilling Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as detailed in Disturbing The Universe (1990); the tracing of autobiographical elements from Lovecraft’s life in “The Dunwich Horror” which Sargent would later expand on in the essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002).

“The Black Brat of Dunwich” is a deliberate subversion of Lovecraft’s original narrative, a sort of critical reading re-cast as fiction, a different point of view where the real antagonist of the original story is not Wilbur Whateley. It is the kind of story that reflects the reality of biographical research, where scholars have to sift through different anecdotes and memoirs, trying to reconcile contradictory accounts and arrive at the truth—and the same game can be played by fans of the Mythos, as they attempt to reconcile different stories written by different authors, to arrive at some coherent understanding of the shared artificial mythology.

Part of the story is thus a very deliberate attempt to confirm certain long-held fan-theories, even while recasting the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. For example:

“Did Wilbur explain how Lavinia had a child by this non-material being?” Jeffrey asked.

Gavin chuckled. “I’d of thought you boys would be smart enough to figure that one out for yourselves! Seems self-evident to me that Wizard Whateley allowed himself to be possessed for an incestuous encounter with his daughter. You’ve read Armitage’s account, don’t you recall that Curtis Whateley described the giant face on top of the monster as being the unmistakable likeness to Wizard Whateley?
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 54

This was probably the inspiration for the scene regarding the conception of the Whateley twins in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ graphic novel Providence.

While writers like Sargent & LaValle have played free with the interpretation of events and characters in Lovecraft’s stories, they have still largely bound themselves to the general sequence of those events and their outcomes—so in “The Black Brat of Dunwich” Lavinia Whateley still gets shut out from her pagan celebrations on Sentinel Hill, and still comes to the same end, just as in “The Dunwich Horror.” The difference in Sargent’s recension is the more sympathetic take on her as a character, showing her as more simple-minded than Lovecraft had and with Wilbur showing real affection for his mother, and going into more detail about her inevitable death.

Inadvertently, this treatment of Lavinia Whateley as a lonely, uneducated woman who is the mere pawn of the men in her life gives her even less agency as a character, but that is a common issue with many re-tellings of “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s narrative doesn’t provide much of a role for Lavinia beyond mother and victim, and any narrative that sticks close to the events of that story will have trouble expanding her story much beyond that. The death of Lavinia becomes not an ominous mystery, but a tragedy unfolding.

One open question left by the story involves a particular scene which blurs the line between homosocial and homosexual. The narrator is aware that Wilbur Whateley is self-conscious of his appearance, and:

“I tried to get him over it, show him it didn’t matter to me. I even kept talking to him on a couple occasions to keep him in the room while I took a bath, figuring he’d eventually loosen up, seeing as how I was no Adonis myself, but it didn’t work. He just sat there staring at me all over, like he was studying me as an example of how folks are supposed to look. I just wanted him to accept himself for who he was and stop worrying about what anyone else thought.” He stared directly at James. “You’d best get that disgusted look off your face damn quick, young man, or I’m done talking.”
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 50

Keeping in mind that while appearing full-grown, Wilbur Whateley was only about six years old in this scene, which makes this feel more than a little like indecent exposure, and recalls some of the problematic issues with “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff. The whole tone of Sargent’s appeal likely echoes strongly with those who have had difficulties coming to grips with either their sexuality or body image, with it being remembered that Stanley C. Sargent put forth one of the most elegant arguments for why Lovecraft may have been a closeted homosexual in an interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998). Wilbur, like Lovecraft, is presented in this story as an outsider.

It is perhaps appropriate then that Sargent dedicated this story to his friend Wilum H. Pugmire, a Mythos author who also identified with the Outsider—but had embraced that identity and relished it.

“The Black Brat of Dunwich” was first published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association mailing #97 and Cthulhu Codex #10 (1997); it has subsequently been reprinted many times, in The Ancient Track (Oct 1998), The Taint of Lovecraft (2002), The Black Book #2 (2002), Tales Out of Dunwich (2005), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), and A Mountain Walked (2014).


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

“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.


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

“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens

[…] his Secret Seed, Cthylla, in whose darkling womb he planned to rise up again one day reborn, had been threatened.
– Brian Lumley, The Transition of Titus Crow (1975)

SingersStrangeSongsAs with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket . . . But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” by Joanna Russ, the title of Tina L. Jens’ piece is a signal about the nature of the work, a reference for readers as to the nature of the piece. A fitting homage to the works of Brian Lumley, given that her novelette was published for the first and only time in Singers of Strange Songs: A Celebration of Brian Lumley (1997). The reason why it has languished mostly forgotten does not reflect on the individual merits of Jens as a writer or of her novelette as a work of fiction, but the nature of the Cthulhu Mythos itself.

There is no canon to the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft and his contemporaries wrote their stories independently, none absolutely behooved to the other to keep their shared mythology consistent—although they played and collaborated: Lovecraft (with the aid and argument of August Derleth, E. Hoffmann Price, Farnsworth Wright, and C. C. Senf) derived a German name for Robert E. Howard’s Black Book, and so we have the Unaussprechlichen Kulten. Clark Ashton Smith offered some clarifications on the genealogy of his alien entities to young fan R. H. Barlow, and so we have the family tree of the gods.

Hazel_Heald_WS3210Genealogy is a fine tradition in the Mythos: it establishes relationships and offers infinite room for expansions, amendments, and additions. Most writers default to Lovecraft’s fiction as “canon,” and so build off of the material in his stories in preference to anything else. Lovecraft, in ghost-writing for Hazel Heald in “Out of the Aeons” (WT Apr 1935) created Ghatanothoa. Lin Carter in “Out of the Ages” (1975) made Ghatanothoa the son of Cthulhu, and gave him two brothers: Ythogtha and Zoth-Ommog. Brian Lumley, in turn building off Carter,  introduced Cthylla in his novel The Transition of Titus Crow (1975).

 

Fewer writers build off the works of later Mythos writers. Aside from possible issues of copyright, the mythology gets convoluted and contradictory, and the quality of the writing and approach to the material varies greatly. Yet many of the concepts created by writers are more enduring than the fiction; Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnr Faugn appeared and was destroyed in the forgettable novella The Horror from the Hills (WT Jan-Mar 1931), but still inspired W. H. Pugmire’s classic “The Child of Dark Mania” (1997); Robert Bloch’s Mythos tales featuring the tome De Vermiis Mysteriis were out of print when featured by Caitlín R. Kiernan’s in “Derma Sutra (1891)” (2008). The success of these stories lies in the ability of later writers to pay homage to their forebears, while doing something innovative with the material.

“In His Darkling Daughter’s Womb” is Jens’ homage to Lumley and his creation—but she does that not by rote recital, nor does she attempt pastiche. “In His Darkling…” is episodic; is built from brief scenes and snatches of field journal entries which provides a brisk pace for what could otherwise have been a good-sized novel. The opening verse (“In his darkling daughter’s womb | Great Cthulhu will be born”) sets the stage for readers who have never read Lumley or Lin Carter before—they may not catch all the references, but they are more informed than the protagonist, Dr. Katherine Cullom.

She is a scientist, skeptical of myth and legend, but entranced by the wonder of what they have captured: a giant, unique octopus specimen. A set-up with all the nuance of bringing an alien lifeform aboard the space station in a horror movie, but the trope works: it allows the reader Cullom’s perspective of Cthylla, behind the glass in her giant aquarium tank, even as the reader get a look into the personal life of Dr. Cullom…and the story really is about her, as much as all the Mythos lore being referenced:

I am tired of the moralizing, the pompous righteousness of all these men, who see me as nothing more than a cold-hearted bitch who cares more for work than her unborn child. What do they know of the pain I must endure as I wait, helpless, hopeless, and without distraction, as yet another child withers and dies in my womb?

Miscarriage is a reproductive horror that is unique to women, and in the Mythos a horror generally unexplored; infertility and the loss of a child are mundane horrors that come to us from within, rather than from outside…and there is no running from them. There are shades and borrowings in Jens’ story familiar to many horror fans—the everyday miracle of conception and birth is ripe for perversion, as famously illustrated by Rosemary’s Baby (1967)…or “The Nameless Offspring” (1932) or “The Dunwich Horror” (1929) or “The Great God Pan” (1890)…but those stories are all about human women being subject to conception, often against their will. Jens’ story takes a different tack: there is no rape in this story, and the primary focus is not on a human woman being impregnated. The lack of violence in the sexual act, if nothing else, sets this apart from most Mythos stories that deal with the reproductive theme.

The story has probably too many in-jokes and a little too self-aware to be a classic of Mythos fiction. The crew outside of those Cullom’s immediately interacts with are faceless, nameless, and disposable; her emotional distance from them is reflected in our lack of information about them. David Gaugham is the closest thing the piece has to a villain, and spends the story plotting and dropping Alhazred’s rhymes ham-handedly (with a brief but excruciating drop to work in a moment on abortion rights—probably just to close off one potential avenue of escape). By contrast, Cthylla gets the most development of any of the characters: Cullom’s obsession with her work lavishes the female Mythos entity with attention. While the reader knows the prophecy of Cthylla, where she comes from and what she is intended to do, she cannot reproduce asexually. It is not without irony that Cullom, who has suffered through fertility treatments and attempts at in vitro fertilization, suits up in a set of tentacles to artificially inseminate Cthylla.

“In His Darkling Daughter’s Womb” is in many ways a dual narrative; Cullom’s tale of very human emotional pain, loss, scientific curiosity, and eventually hope intertwines with Cthylla’s own story, and through Cullom does Cthulhu’s daughter conceive, and through Cthylla does Cullom reach her own kind of redemption—yet at the same time the whole sequence of events takes place within the larger narrative of Lumley’s prophesy of Cthulhu’s return. Even the small triumphs of humanity are, ultimately, no more than steps leading to something greater, and like Rosemary in Rosemary’s Baby, Collum cannot even see how she is being manipulated to bring about what others desire. Scrape all the unnecessary Mythos references out of this story, and it still holds up as a decent story of a weird monster that has been captured by a female scientist dealing with her own issues; add them in however, and it becomes part of a larger story…which is the point of the Cthulhu Mythos.


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