“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 unmistable 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)