The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe (2016) by Kij Johnson

In a land defined by dreaming men and bickering gods, there were no sure rules, but there was also no certain randomness.
—Kij Johnson, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 133-134

You don’t have to have read Lovecraft or Dunsany to appreciate The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe. Without those references, it is still a very competent fantasy novelette. Johnson has a good eye for detail, characterization, description; the plot moves quick, never gets hung up too long in one place, one peril. Vellitt Boe is on a mission, after all.

That being said, without the historical context of Lovecraft and Dunsany, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is in danger of being misunderstood as a generic fantasy novel, of the sort inspired by a thousand sessions of Dungeons & Dragons, Tunnels & Trolls, or Fighting Fantasy. This comes almost as a consequence of how you get from Lord Dunsany to Kij Johnson, and to really appreciate what she is doing in this novelette and how it got there requires a bit of background. 

H. P. Lovecraft discovered Lord Dunsany in 1919. The Anglo-Irish peer had created an artificial mythology in his tales of Pegāna, which would inspire Lovecraft’s own mythos, and the stories of “Beyond the Fields We Know” in Tales of Three Hemispheres (1919) including “Idle Days on the Yann” and “The Shop in Go-By Street” would lay the groundwork for Lovecraft’s Dreamlands.

It is important to remember that Lovecraft built his Mythos over time, defining and re-defining it as time went on and other influences came to bear. “The Cats of Ulthar” (written June 1920) was not originally set in the Dreamlands; it was a generic fantasy. The first actual Dreamlands story was “Celephaïs” (written November 1920). In later fiction, these early fantasies and their names and geographies would be subsumed into the Dreamlands—and the “Dream Cycle” with its vagaries and contradictions (were exactly is Leng?) have given compilers of Mythos-lore much to chew on and argue about.

Randolph Carter came into existence in 1919 as well, in “The Statement of Randolph Carter.” This early story had nothing to do with the Dreamlands either; Lovecraft recorded a dream in his letters involving himself and his friend Samuel Loveman. In turning the dream into a story, Loveman became “Hartley Warren” and Lovecraft himself became “Randolph Carter.” The character became a self-identified counterpart for Lovecraft himself in his stories, though he appeared in only a few of them, notably “The Silver Key” (1926), which is the only one that was a Dreamlands tale until The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (written 1926-1927).

Lovecraft’s Dream-Quest is fundamentally different from anything he wrote before or since. Maybe that is why in part it found no publication during his lifetime. Too long, too weird, too inexplicably full of adventure—it is this novelette which binds together Lovecraft’s “dream” stories, early fantasies, and Randolph Carter stories. Without Dream-Quest, you could argue the Dreamlands are still a part of the Mythos, but places like Ulthar wouldn’t be a part of it. This was the story that really gave the scope and connective tissue that bound much of Lovecraft’s early fiction together. In structure and conception, it is much more similar to David Lindsay’s A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) or E. R. Eddison’s The Worm Ouroboros (1922) than anything else.

There aren’t really any women in it.

Which is true for much more of Lovecraft’s fiction than just The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. As discussed in Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft does have female characters in his stories, but the gender balance is distinctly skewed towards male characters. In large part, this seems to be simply because Lovecraft seldom made a character female unless there was a reason for her to be female. Which is why the only absolute reference to women in Dream-Quest is:

It is known that in disguise the younger among the Great Ones often espouse the daughters of men, so that around the borders of the cold waste wherein stands Kadath the peasants must all bear their blood. 

That’s it. There are other references to women in some of the other stories, if you look hard enough—the cat-killing wife in “The Cats of Ulthar” for example—but for the most part, women are implicit. Priests, but no priestesses. “Men” as a generic term for all persons of every gender, in the very 18th century sense. Rapacious gods of the Greco-Roman school, but no lusty goddesses bedding the handsome young men around Kadath.

It was in this context that Kij Johnson wrote her own Dream-Quest, and it is in many ways both a continuation of the tradition of Dunsany and Lovecraft, and a reflection on those works.

And I must of course acknowledge Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. I first read it at ten, thrilled and terrified, and uncomfortable with the racism but not yet aware that the total absence of women was also problematic. This story is my adult self returning to a thing I loved as a child and seeing whether I could make adult sense of it.
—Kij Johnson, “Acknowledgements” in The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe 167

Johnson did the work, sifted the stories. The story is set between “The Silver Key” and “Through the Gates of the Silver Key”; it references Lovecraft’s geography and zoology, but also subtly grounds and expands them. The Dreamlands are seen through the eyes of a native, an intelligent and experienced woman who knows more of how things work and finds delight in them. The skill of her construction is such that she never needs to cite a story specifically; it is never written that “In Ulthar no man may kill a cat,” because the idea is implicit in the story: no one even thinks of trying to kill a cat in Ulthar. It simply doesn’t come up. More amusingly and refreshingly, we get little anecdotes like how a young Vellitt Boe tried to climb Hatheg-Kla under the logic that it was only said no man could climb it. A neat bit which feels a bit like Éowyn taking a swing at the Witch-King of Angmar.

The story is at its best when it is showing rather than telling. Why not a woman’s college in Ulthar? Why not a female far-traveler? Nothing in Randolph Carter’s dream-quest required him to have a penis, so what’s to stop a woman from having her own adventure in the Dreamlands? Absolutely nothing.

The story is arguably at its weakest when it stops showing and starts telling.

She had never met a woman from the waking world. Once she asked Carter about it.

“Women don’t dream large dreams,” he had said, dismissively. “It is all babies and housework. Tiny dreams.”

Men said stupid things all the time, and it was perhaps no surprise that men of the waking world might do so as well, yet she was disappointed in Carter. Her dreams were large, of trains a mile long and ships that climbed to the stars, of learning the languages of squids and slime-molds, of crossing a chessboard the size of a city. That night and for years afterward, she had envisioned another dream land, built from the imaginings of powerful women dreamers. (ibid. 71-72)

In narrative terms, the characterization of Randolph Carter as a bit of a straw-man serves its purpose only in highlighting Boe’s struggles as a woman. Even in the Dreamlands, there are gender norms and imbalances; the women’s college of Ulthar is the youngest and most vulnerable of the seven universities, and even a hint of scandal could see it closed, upper education cut off. In that sense, Johnson needed some character to personify the casual misogyny that Boe quested against as much as anything else.

Carter as a mouthpiece is problematic mainly because he never voices such views in Lovecraft’s fiction, and as he is implicitly Lovecraft’s alter-ego (though Johnson does not make this point) it can be read as Johnson putting words in Lovecraft’s mouth. While Lovecraft did evince a few chauvinistic statements during his life, he never wrote anything like what Carter says in Johnson’s Dream-Quest. The statement (“powerful women dreamers” is a great line) needed to be made at some point, if for no other reason than it sets up the finale, but the characterization seems off; rather like Ervin Howard in “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle. If a dead horse is going to be beaten, at least beat it for something it actually did.

There is a line in the story that may be uncomfortable, but then it would be a sad world where such a line would be otherwise:

As a young woman, when she had been beautiful and had worn her hair short and her clothes loose to conceal that fact, she had known all the signs of men and read them well enough that she had been successfully robbed only three times and raped once; but none of those had burned from her the hunger for empty spaces, strange cities, new oceans. (ibid. 83)

Nothing of the act, which happened sometime in the far past, is shown. Which is good; the last thing the story needed was an exploitative recap, some trauma porn of the effect and slow recovery. The event happened, it didn’t define her. It is also not the only mention of rape in the story; Vellitt Boe is traveling mostly alone in a quasi-Early Modern fantasy world. Sexual assault need not have a gender bias (the setting rarely hints at lesbianism as a possibility, and male homosexuality is completely absent from the text) but old habits die hard. How many women traveling alone today have the same fear?

Which is perhaps the one real criticism of The Dream-Quest of Villett Boe. It is great for what it is, but if the purpose was to have a message as well tell a story, it feels like it could have been that much better. Why aren’t there any female gods in the Dreamlands? Why aren’t there any female dreamers? Johnson wasn’t obliged to stick to Lovecraft or Dunsany in every regard, and doesn’t. Yet her Dreamland is almost too close to the waking world in some of its gender constructs and mores.

You might be interested to know that at the party one very bright young woman described her adolescent reading of SF as a genuinely subversive force in her life, a real alternative to the fundamentalist community into which she had been born. This alternative had nothing to do with the cardboard heroes and heroines or the imperial American/engineering values which she had skipped right over. What got to her were the alien landscapes and alien creatures. We scholars perhaps tend to forget how much subversive potential both SF and fantasy have, even at their crudest.
—Joanna Russ, To Write Like A Woman 64

Russ, of course, wrote her own Dreamlands tale: “My Boat” (1976). Ironically, Russ’s story features a powerful woman dreamer (who also happens to be black), exactly the kind of character that Villett Boe lamented never meeting in her own Dreamlands. It’s a pity that the two characters didn’t run across each other—but the tales remain complementary. The Dreamlands is big enough for both characters, and more besides.

The book is at its most subversive when just letting Vellitt Boe find her own way, rather than being escorted by guards or ghouls or rescued by gugs. The Dreamlands through her eyes is a delight, and just having a female character be the protagonist of a Dreamlands story in itself is more of a statement that See? Women can explore the Dreamlands too! than any of the casual misogyny attributed to Randolph Carter (or, implicitly, Lovecraft). If Johnson’s goal beyond writing the story was to write a Dreamlands where the women aren’t invisible and mute, she can certainly be said to have succeeded. Above and beyond that, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe is a very rare thing: a good Dreamlands story, written in a way that is not a pastiche of Dunsany or Lovecraft.

Kij Johnson’s The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe was published in 2016 by Tor.


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

Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw

Not for the first time, I consider giving the kid a refund. I’d gotten into the detective business to escape the deepwater blues, from the songs that squirm in your veins like worms. Sure, I’d go for an easy job, sometimes, ice a monster that had gotten too big for his bed. But this?
—Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone 56

H. P. Lovecraft did not invent weird fiction, in the same way Raymond Chandler didn’t invent hardboiled detective fiction. Noir and the Mythos are first cousins, descended from Edgar Allan Poe’s detective stories of C. Auguste Dupin—and over the years many writers have written weirdly consanguineous marriages in that sprawling family. Sometimes they even work out.

Cassandra Khaw is working, whether she knows it or not, in a tradition that includes C. J. Henderson’s The Tales of Inspector Legrasse (2005), James Ambuehl’s anthology Hardboiled Cthulhu (2006), and Ron Shiftlet’s Looking for Darla (2008). Graphic novels have been especially prolific of late, with entries including Weird Detective (2017) and Casefile: Arkham (2016). The stories work (when they do work) because both Mythos and noir stories are at heart mysteries; there is some hidden truth, cosmic or sordid, to be uncovered before the end. In many cases, they also share a setting in the 1920s and 30s. But the approach is distinct; hardboiled detectives are made of sterner stuff than most Lovecraftian protagonists, and the hard-drinking men and women who try to find the rotten worms of the earth at the core of a Mythos mystery usually end up regretting the experience.

Which is the case with Khaw’s novella Hammers on Bone.

John Persons, P.I., is an anachronism. Prowling the streets of modern-day London, he talks like a character out of a Mickey Spillane novel. A creature out of time in more sense than one, he lives the gumshoe role in a case that combines the tragic realities of domestic violence and economic hardship on the one hand, and body horror and eldritch experiences on the other. If you don’t think about the details; it works fine: Khaw has a great sense for her characters, and Persons’ personality and penchant for hardboiled slang carry the narrative along nicely.

The plot itself? A jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces deliberately missing. Khaw doesn’t set up any particular rules for her universe, at least not on the page. Like “All This for the Greater Glory of the 7th and 329th Children of the Black Goat of the Woods” (2012) by Molly Tanzer it feels filtered through half-remembered sessions of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. There is that assumption of familiarity with various bits and pieces of Mythos lore, but also a slapdash quality to it all. An almost cartoonish aspect where things happen because the story demands an action beat and the visuals are cool, but at the end of things there are crucial questions that remained unanswered. It isn’t a mystery where you can guess the end by page three, or page ninety-three, and when the last page of the epilogue is turned the reader may find themselves asking why Persons didn’t handle the case differently.

After all, it’s only murder.

Part of the problem is that the villain of this piece is a cipher. A domestic abuser and chav’s chav with squamous secret beneath the skin, but there are fill-in-the-blanks missing. Why does he do what he does? What is he after? Why hasn’t he done it already, if he has the power to? Unanswered questions and missing motivations. During the legwork phase of the investigation, Persons stumbles across something bigger than an alcoholic asshole who beats his not-quite-wife and spreads his eldritch infection—but the story cuts off before we get further down that particular road. Maybe in the sequel.

Hammers on Bone was published in 2016 as part of Tor’s Lovecraftian novella series. Khaw has written a sequel, A Song for Quiet (2017).


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

“At the Left Hand of Nothing” (2016) by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

That cult would never die till the stars came right again, and the secret priests would take great Cthulhu from His tomb to revive His subjects and resume His rule of earth. The time would be easy to know, for then mankind would have become as the Great Old Ones; free and wild and beyond good and evil, with laws and morals thrown aside and all men shouting and killing and revelling in joy. Then the liberated Old Ones would teach them new ways to shout and kill and revel and enjoy themselves, and all the earth would flame with a holocaust of ecstasy and freedom.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

When all is madness, there is no madness.
—Scott R. Jones, introduction to Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016) 5

Lovecraft was a materialist; he had no belief in gods, neither those of traditional religion or of his own making, and carefully informed fans that yes, Cthulhu and the Necronomicon and all the rest were totally fictional, that he and Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith & co. had made them all up. The irony of this is that the writings of the materialist would inspire in others true faith; that his writings would be taken by some as revelations of occult truth, and others as something close to holy writ. So we have Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason and “The Book of the Forgotten Ones” (1977) by Nema Andahadna and many other works of esotericism, accounts of spiritual revelation or occult compilation.

For all that these individuals and groups pay homage to the names and ideas that Lovecraft & co. created, few of them strive to capture or explore the philosophy behind those names. Thomas Ligotti comes to mind: “The Sect of the Idiot” and “The Last Feast of Harlequin” dig deep into the philosophic underpinnings of the Mythos. Scott R. Jones in When the Stars Are Right: Towards An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality (2014) describes the deep understanding of the Mythos, beyond the farcical family trees of the gods and sometimes humorous mucking about with incantations and talismans, as the Black Gnosis.

Humanity, with its bilateral symmetry, tends to think in dichotomies. Good and evil, black and white, left and right. Theosophists and occultists in the early 20th century talked about black lodges and white, locked in a cycle of conflict; the devotees of “evil” revelations followed the left-hand path, the Satanists and Thelemites, while those “white magicians” followed the right-hand path. The terminology of left hand/right hand was borrowed (stolen, appropriated) from Indian tantra; Westerners like Aleister Crowley seeking to incorporate aspects of Eastern esoteric practices into their occult systems were cafeteria occultists.

Of course the Chinese mix everything up. Look at what they have to work with. There’s Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoist alchemy and sorcery. We take what we want and leave the rest. Just like your salad bar.
—Egg Shen, Big Trouble in Little China (1986)

Every so often, however, someone comes along that reminds us that the universe is much stranger than our standard definitions, that we are limited by our conceptions. Such a work is “At the Left Hand of Nothing” by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy.

A short piece, but dense in concepts. An unnamed cultist or adept speaks to an unknown audience. Familiar terms are embedded in unfamiliar attitudes. The language is carefully chosen, the reader letting the onion peel back, layer by layer, revelation by revelation.

There is an entire literature out there dealing with the antics of these fools. It is imagined that these plots and cults are the sum of our ambition; that we exist merely to subvert normality and exalt some strang epantheon, that we want to pring a triumphal return of squamous divinity to old Earth.
—Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, “At the Left Hand of Nothing”
in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016) 54

The central idea of Satyamurthy’s piece harkens back to the older, original idea of left-hand and right-hand tantra. Wearing black robes and participating in orgies in the swamp isn’t the left-hand path; maybe none of the characters in any of Lovecraft’s stories had the insight and ambition to conceive of the possibilities that Satyamurthy hints at, though some of the stories that came after have characters whose feet might have turned in such directions.

It is, if nothing else, a revelation. A new way to think about the Mythos. Something to widen your preconceptions, re-calibrate how you think about stories old and new. Go back and re-read “The Call of Cthulhu” after reading this story, and see if you can experience it in a new way. Not as the naive believer in old Castro’s ramblings, but as an initiate that knows a deeper truth and can recognize him and his for what they are…and who their true undying masters must be.

“At the Left Hand of Nothing” was first published in Cthulhusattva: Tales of the Black Gnosis (2016); it has not yet been reprinted. Jayaprakash Satyamurthy has written a number of weird tales, some of which have been collected in Weird Tales of a Bangalorean (2015) and Come Tomorrow: And Other Tales of Bangalore Terror (2020). His Lovecraftian stylings can also be experienced with his band Djinn and Miskatonic.


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

“Legacy of Salt” (2016) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Mayans thought the cenotes were portals to the realm of the dead, Xibalba, but his family called it by another name, Y’ha-nthlei, and the cenote was Yliah’he. It had no meaning in Mayan, this was an older language, the elders had told him. A language from before the Conquest, before the great pyramids rose upon the limestone bedrock of Yucatán. Much of the knowledge had been lost through the years, but some true names and words remained. Yliah’he.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Legacy of Salt” in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 324

The Mythos, from its small hard core of writings by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, has been spun out by many writers in many ways. That is the great gift of it: being able to play with the ideas, to have readers trace the shape of old stories and old ideas, newly embodied: refreshed, reincarnated, yet recognizable.

Scene: Yucatán, the 1960s. An old family, an old house; echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, the shadows a little darker in the harsh tropical sunlight. The family name is Marin rather than Marsh; there is no Devil’s Reef, but there is the cenote Yliah’he.

A Mexican Innsmouth, a new corner of Lovecraft country.

The story itself is a romance, almost a telenovela; we know this story even if we haven’t read it before. Will they/won’t they? There are all the usual and unusual obstructions: a fiance back in Mexico City, the call of the modern world, the titillating hint of incest. Yet Silvia Moreno-Garcia carries us through admirably. She knows these waters, the details that make the setting pop, the buttons to push to keep the reader wondering, until the very end, which way it will go.

Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote “Legacy of Salt” around the time she was reading a lot of philosophy of biology materials and also a Darwin biography as part of her Master’s degree studies. “Some of the scientific issues I was exploring collided with this story. I have always found ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ to be fascinating since it seems to dip its toes into the notion of repulsion/attraction. Is it such a bad thing to swim eternally in underwater palaces? I kind of like the idea. The Yucatán peninsula is definitely nothing like New England but the numerous markers for archaeological sites somewhat reminded me of the nation of the past creeping upon the present, which occurs in some of Lovecraft’s fiction.”
The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 312

Unlike “Ahuizotl” (2011) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas or “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader, there is very little of horror in this story, and that which remains is mixed with fascination. The protagonist, Eduardo Marin, has tragedy in his life—father dead in a car crash, a mother that abandoned him to start a new family—but there is nothing as traumatic to the family as a whole as the raid on Innsmouth which overshadows and informs “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe and “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys.

Except in the sense that the Marins are survivors; remnants of some family line that dates back before the Conquest of Mexico. There are hints throughout the story, references to the Mayan rain-god Chaac, in the shape of a frog, but nothing specific. Hints, remnants, just enough to whet the imagination. The lack of knowledge, loss of knowledge, is the great sub-theme of this story. The biological and material “legacy of salt” is undeniable, but there is a loss of cultural knowledge keenly felt…and that too is a legacy of the Conquest.

“Legacy of Salt” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016), and has not yet been reprinted. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has been an editor, writer, and translator. Her Lovecraftian fiction includes “Flash Frame” (2010), “In the House of the Hummingbirds” (2012), “The Sea, Like Broken Glass” (2014), and “In the Details” (2015), and her latest novel is Mexican Gothic (2020).


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

“The Genesis Mausoleum” (2016) by Colleen Douglas

And right here—speaking of new writers and square deals—we want to mention something that causes editors no end of trouble and makes them proceed cautiously in dealing with people unknown to them. We’re talking now about plagiarism. We hold this to be not only the most despicable form of theft, but a heinous crime perpetuated by thieves against whom the editor has no defense.
—Edwin Baird, first editor of Weird Tales,
“What Editors Want: Why Manuscripts Go Home” (October 1923),
reprinted in The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales 270

Some Mythos writers have been claimed to construct their stories with all the care of a good hoax; some Mythos fans have gone so far as to fabricate library entries, advertisements, bookplates, realistic photos, and facsimile books and artifacts—most in good fun, with little intent to truly deceive. When L. Sprague de Camp created the Al Azif (Owlswick Press, 1973), it was with a nod and wink. H. P. Lovecraft, his contemporaries, and literary followers have used pseudonyms for both commercial and literary reasons, partially or wholly disguising their authorship but not with any attempt to defraud the reader or publisher.

From a literary perspective, there is a great deal of the Mythos which lends itself to recycling. Plots, characters, settings, sometimes even language can often end up in new stories, particularly in the form of pastiche. How many times have readers read Abdul Alhazred’s dread couplet? How many writers have borrowed wholesale bits and pieces of the stories of Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith? As those first Mythos works move into the public domain, the line between original fiction and creative recycling of older material gets blurrier, as in the case of “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon.

Yet both of those authors acknowledged their source, publicly. They transformed the material into a novel, original work. This has, unfortunately, not always been the case.

In 2015, Dark Regions Press crowdfunded Dreams From The Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horrorwhich hit its goals and entered print in 2016. Among the contents was a story by a new author: “The Genesis Mausoleum” by Colleen Douglas. This turned out, as at least one reviewer quickly noted, to actually be Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seed from the Sepulcher” (Weird Tales Oct 1933). Ironically, far from being an obscure tale from one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, “The Seed from the Sepulcher” is Smith’s most-anthologized story. Dark Regions Press admitted the error and published a new edition of the book in 2018, excising all mention of Colleen Douglas.

This has made the first edition, first printing relatively scarce (and, if online booksellers are not scrupulous in their ISBNs and descriptions, difficult to make out from its later edition, which has an identical cover and near-identical contents). A close examination of the text, however, has revealed something more complicated than someone re-typing Smith’s original story and then adding a new title and their own name to the manuscript.

The most obvious change is that Douglas substituted the names of the two protagonists: Smith’s James Falmer and Roderick Thone become Morgan Arpad and Marshal Tefere, respectively. A comparison of the text with the original Weird Tales publication shows more than that: a number of substantial changes, including re-wording, excisions, and changes in punctuation. Nothing to much change the plot, but substantial enough to make me wonder if these were all her own changes, or the reflection of a different textual tradition.

While we like to think of stories as being “a text,” the facts are rarely that simple. Writers often create drafts and synopses before the final manuscript, which may be submitted, rejected, revised, re-submitted, accepted, copy-edited, published, corrected, and re-published. In the pulps especially, stories may be cannibalized and re-written, so that that a single story may have many different textual variations—some of which might be relatively minor (misspellings or odd punctuation) and some of which might be substantial (an editor re-wrote the last paragraphs to change the ending).

Scott Connors in A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Vol. 3 gives a succinct overview of the textual history of “The Seed from the Sepulchre.” Clark Ashton Smith originally wrote a synopsis for the tale, and then a typescript which was submitted to Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. This version was rejected, revised, re-submitted, and accepted. Editor Harry Bates copy-edited the typescript, but Strange Tales folded. Smith re-revised the tale and submitted it to Weird Tales, where it was rejected, revised, re-submitted, and eventually accepted and saw print. (During this process, Smith also showed the story to H. P. Lovecraft and gave a copy of the typescript to fan R. H. Barlow).

The October 1933 Weird Tales printing has been (as far as I have been able to determine) the basis for all subsequent publications until the time of A Vintage from Atlantis. Scott Connors had tracked down the typescripts and created a variorum of the different texts of “The Seed from the Sepulchre” in 2007, on which the Collected Fantasies version is based. Yet “The Genesis Mausoleum” differs from this version as well—so where did Colleen Douglas get the text for the story, and what exactly did she do to it?

Side-by-side comparison of “The Genesis Mausoleum” text with the 1933 Weird Tales text reveals a few things. Aside from the replacement of Falmer and Thone throughout, all of Smith’s original use of the word “Indian” have been replaced—once with “Amerindian,” once with “Incan,” and the rest with “guide” or “guides” as appropriate. A good chunk of Smith’s more obscure or flavorful vocabulary has been removed or replaced with simpler counterparts. A number of sentences and clauses have been removed, effectively “tightening up” the story. The most substantial example of this kind of economy:

“The Seed from the Sepulcher” (1933):

“My head! My head! he muttered. “There must be something in my brain, something that grows and spreads; I tell you, I can feel it there. I haven’t felt right at any time since I left the burial pit… my mind has been queer ever since. It must have been the spores of the ancient devil-plant… The spores have taken root… The thing is splitting my skull, going down into my brain—a plant that springs out of a human cranium—as if from a flower pot!”

“The Genesis Mausoleum” (2016):

“My head! My head!” he muttered. “There must be somthing in my brain, something that grows and spreads; I can feel it there taking root!”

Some of these changes require the addition of a few new words, as above where Douglas added “I can feel it there taking root!”, but this accounts for less than 1% of the total text. The story, as abridged and altered as it may be, is still almost pure Clark Ashton Smith.

The systematic nature of the changes become more obvious when comparing the 2016 and 1933 texts side by side: there is at least one word or punctuation mark changed in every single paragraph. While there are sentences as Smith wrote them, whole and untouched, the changes taken as a whole seem much more substantial than a simple 2016 editorial pass…but such changes might make sense if the person making the changes were attempting to disguise the story so that it would not be flagged by plagiarism software.

As for the actual textual source for “The Genesis Mausoleum,” there is reason to suspect that it was not the 1933 text (in any of its numerous anthology publications), but the readily-available e-text version on the Eldritch Dark website, titled “The Seed from the Sepulchre” (last edited 2009). This website hosts a good deal of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction and poetry, but the texts are known to have numerous small issues with spelling, punctuation, and formatting. One of the characteristic “tells” of the Eldritch Dark text compared to the 1933 text is a small issue of formatting:

“The Seed from the Sepulcher” (1933):

Thone decided after a while, as he lay staring at his companion, that the latter’s taciturnity and moroseness were perhaps due to disappointment over his failure to find the treasure. It must have been that, together with some tropical infection working in the man’s blood. However, he admitted doubtfully to himself, it was not like Falmer to be disappointed or downcast under such circumstances.

Falmer did not speak again, but sat glaring before him as if he saw something invisible to others beyond the labyrinth of fire-touched boughs and lianas in which the whispering, stealthy darkness crouched. Somehow, there was a shadowy fear in his aspect. Thone continued to watch him, and saw that the Indians, impassive and cryptic, were also watching him, as if with some obscure expectancy. The riddle was too much for Thone, and he gave it up after a while, lapsing into restless, fever-turbulent slumber from which he awakened at intervals, to see the set face of Falmer, dimmer and more distorted each time with the slowly dying fire and the invading shadows.

“The Seed from the Sepulchre” (Eldritch Dark):

Thone decided after a while, as he lay staring at his companion, that the latter’s taciturnity and moroseness were perhaps due to disappointment over his failure to find the treasure. It must have been that, together with some tropical infection working in the man’s blood. However, he admitted doubtfully to himself, it was not like Falmer to be disappointed or downcast under such circumstances. Falmer did not speak again, but sat glaring before him as if he saw something invisible to others beyond the labyrinth of fire-touched boughs and lianas in which the whispering, stealthy darkness crouched. Somehow, there was a shadowy fear in his aspect. Thone continued to watch him, and saw that the Indians, impassive and cryptic, were also watching him, as if with some obscure expectancy. The riddle was too much for Thone, and he gave it up after a while, lapsing into restless, fever-turbulent slumber from which he awakened at intervals, to see the set face of Falmer, dimmer and more distorted each time with the slowly dying fire and the invading shadows.

“The Genesis Mausoleum” combines the two paragraphs into one, just as the Eldritch Dark text does. While this cannot be taken as definitive proof, it is at least suggestive.

The level of alteration in the story may also be another reason which the editor of Dreams From The Witch House didn’t catch it. While it’s true that nobody can read everything, there seems to have been a deliberate and not unskilled effort to deceive in the way the text was edited, possibly to fool online plagiarism detection tools.

The question remains: why?

Colleen Douglas‘, a graduate in Creative Writing, has a South American background;. She hails from the former British colony of Guyana and has lived in London for over two decades. She has always enjoyed works with some form of darkness, be it the gradual crreping or more blatantly obvious kind. Her interest in writing began at the age of 14, when she wrote her first horror story, after reading her father’s copy of Burial: The Manitou by Graham Masterton. She listens to rock music when writing fight scenes and haunts cafés when she begins and completes a project. The latter maybe a frame narrative habit, she cannot honestly account for the former. As a writer, she has always been drawn to the unconventional. She writes dark fantasy with elements of horror and science-fiction. She loves her eclectic disposition and storytelling diversity, as it places her in a unique atmosphere, with new challenges to conquer each time she writes.
—Author Biographies, Dreams From The Witch House (first edition)

If Colleen Douglas did get a BA in Creative Writing, as her author bio for her 2014 novel Origins claims, she knew well what she was doing both in editing the story and submitting it under a false title and her own name. It is not that she cannot write, if her 2014 interview and a brief excerpt on the inspiration of “The Genesis Mausoleum” are accurate:

When I was a young teen, I went to visit my grandmother, who lived in a village on the East Coast of the Demerara River. She lived in an old-style house, built on stilts near the main road which ran through the village. On late afternoons would sit on the stairs after my chores. It was one such afternoon that I spotted the flashes of red against the verdant green of the parapet on the opposite side of the road. I was fascinated and tried to discern the source, which turned out to be a green frog tied in a red bow. It proceeded to make its way up the stairs of a neighbour’s house and as it reached the top stair it disappeared. Almost instantly, there was awful screaming from within that house. I ran inside to tell my gran what I had seen. She told me to say nothing. That memory stayed with me. Later, I learned the woman in that house was an outsider who came to teach the children and had started an affair with the son of a “spiritualist” ( I use the term exceedingly loosely). At the time, I had no context, but in later years when I thought of what I’d seen, William Blake came to mind… “There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.” It seemed to me that like the neighbor in my grandmother’s village, the characters in “The Genesis Mausoleum” had met such a “door.”
—Dreams From The Witch House (first edition) 340

The odd thing is, Clark Ashton Smith, the “victim” of the theft is long dead. While it isn’t clear if the 1933 copyright for “The Seed from the Sepulcher” was renewed (CASiana Enterprises, which handles Smith’s literary estate, have it copyrighted 1989), more than one story has already been written with it as an inspiration. As noted above, other Mythos stories have borrowed heavily and not been considered plagiarism, because the author added something new to them. A remixed or revision of the original text could have found honest acclaim for skill and creativity.

It is good such cases as “The Genesis Mausoleum” are so rare in Mythos fiction. The whole literary game involves a spirit of generosity and credit-where-credit is due. If we lose sight of that, what is left?

My thanks and appreciation to Scott Connors and Dave Goudsward for help on this post.


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

 

Whispers (2016) by Kristin Dearborn

The whole matter began, so far as I am concerned, with the historic and unprecedented Vermont floods of November 3, 1927.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

The whole matter begins, as far as Dearborn is concerned, with the historic floods of August 2011. On August  29th, 2011, Tropical Storm Irene swept through Vermont, washing away roads and bridges and swamping rural communities in a manner which recalled the 1927 flood. Three people were killed.
—Daniel Mills, “Foreword,” Whispers (2016)

If you pick up a copy of Dearborn’s novella, skip the foreword by Mills. Go into it raw, without expectations. Let her surprise you a little.

“Lovecraft Country” is a space of the mind. Psychogeography. A map of myth that isn’t the territory. Walk through the streets of Newburyport, and it isn’t Innsmouth. Parts of Salem and Danvers might remind you of Arkham, but it isn’t that place, not really. There is no Dunwich. The weirdly verdant forests of Vermont were only as real, in their way, as Machen’s hills. Readers get the impression of the place, as it was in the 1920s and 30s, filtered through Lovecraft.

Not many writers re-tread the old literary sod, update it. Kristin Dearborn did.

Whispers is not a straight re-imagining of Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness” in the strictest sense. The literary DNA is there, and just to erase any doubt is printed clearly on the cover of the book, but it is “inspired by,” not a pastiche or rehash of the old story. The tone and approach are different, more contemporary. New eyes on old territory.

The narrative shifts back and forth, Sarah and Neveah and Dean, chapter by chapter. One of those transitions which is easier to do in print than in film, for all the horror movie aesthetic. Something in the woods, dogs growling, protective barriers of distrust and paranoia raised and lowered. Then the voices start.

Score some crystal with us, Neveah.
—Kristin Dearborn, Whispers 17

Drug literature is an old standby of weird fiction, from Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs” and Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Hashish-Eater, or, The Apocalypse of Evil” to Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness. Most focus on the extraordinary visions, the excuse for phantasmagoric imagery, not the mental and physical cost. Not getting beaten up by your pimp-cum-dealer. It’s a matter-of-fact ugliness, earth-gazing. The kind of detail that keeps the story grounded.

We’ll show you the stars. (ibid, 18)

The stars are very far away from a small cabin in Vermont. Forces are in motion, narrative forces that the reader is aware of but those two women and five dogs in the cabin are not. Everyone brings their own history, their own baggage to bear, coloring their understanding of the situation. It’s a human element which Lovecraft largely distanced himself from. His eyes were for the stars, the wonder and horror of it all. Dearborn’s is for the people living the story.

It’s not the first time a writer has re-approached “The Whisperer in Darkness” from the perspective of human emotions, entanglements—even sex. Richard Lupoff wrote a sequel to Lovecraft’s story titled “Documents in the Case of Elizabeth Akeley” (1982) which brought the cosmic horror back down to Earth…but that is the key difference. Dearborn roots her story in the characters; she isn’t writing a sequel to anything. There are still things to discover for the first time in Whispers.

They aren’t all pretty. Not everybody gets to see the stars.

Whispers was published in 2016 by the Lovecraft eZine Press.


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

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe

So you’re not here to initiate me into the mysteries of the sea-mother whose faces rise and fall with the countless waves and her consort who makes the fish shoal as thick as cornfields in the fall?
—Sonya Taaffe, “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” in Forget the Sleepless Shores 247

There is an anthology or two yet to be compiled about Innsmouth. One might be called Women of Innsmouth, exploring the less-trodden narrative paths of the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers which go largely nameless and implied in Lovecraft’s tale, and include “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson, “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader, “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Another, inspired more by the raid on Innsmouth and its aftermath, might be called The Innsmouth Diaspora, and include “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, and “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” by Sonya Taffe would fit neatly into both.

There is a promise in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” that is unique in all of Lovecraft’s work, that at the end:

We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

It is the one ending where the Lovecraftian protagonist embraces their change, and looks forward to what is to come. When all that once terrified them becomes, in a new light, what they have always wanted. And maybe that change in perspective is itself just another of Lovecraft’s rhetorical devices, showing that even the mind is not spared and all that they were was lost…but for some folks, there is a real path forward there. For those who have hated themselves or been hated by others for what they were (or were not), for those who have desired a personal transformation to accompany their private realizations, it is a promising ending. Not necessarily a happy ending, but one that promises a posthuman future.

Sonya Taafe wrote the story about what happens when that promise can’t be fulfilled.

Can’t is a mean word, full of inevitability. There are a lot of can’ts that exist in our world, a lot of nevers. People don’t like that there are things that they can’t change, about themselves and the world around them. Limits to medical science, to money, to talent, to the imagination. Speculative fiction exists in part to answer those can’ts, to provide a haven for what if, a place where it’s okay to dream about a world where you can have the biological gender to match your identity, or can have children, or can fly through the sky to the beating of great wings…

…or where you can breathe water and go down into the dark abysses.

This is a story about those who can’t. Blame it on genetics, the legacy of old Innsmouth families that survived the raid growing diffuse with the generations. Real-world genetics as applied to Lovecraftian biology. Hopes and dreams crushed by terrible realities. It is wonderful in its way: bleak and unsparing as the love between distant cousins, tied together in the loose-knit way of diaspora, like seeking like, and yet feeling distant and alienated from their own kin. Because not everyone belongs. Not everyone can…and it isn’t their fault. Isn’t anyone’s fault.

It is not a universe that cares about what is fair, even for the lost and wandering descendants of Innsmouth. And it can only end one way:

[…]  I was asked that question once and all I could think of was the Odyssey, how the road of the dead is a sea-road, the sun’s road, past the streams of Ocean and the gates of Helios, and maybe the pattern would be clearer to someone outside my head.
“An Interview with Sonya Taaffe, Author, Editor, Durian-Lover” (4 Aug 2004)

For some, the sea calls her children home; for others, they go willingly into a different abyss…and that is, perhaps, still better than the dry land.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” was first published in Dreams from the Witch-House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016) and republished in her collection Forget the Sleepless Shores (2018).


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

Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff

So they talked about Ray Bradbury, and Robert Heinlein, and Isaac Asimov, all of whome Earl liked; and L. Ron Hubbard, whom he didn’t; and the Tom Swift series, which Earl had loved when he was young but which embarrassed him now, both for the books’ depiction of Negroes and for the fact that as a boy he hadn’t noticed it, despite his father’s repeated attempts to point it out to him.
—Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country 5

There’s a lesson buried in the opening pages of Matt Ruff’s novel, soon to be an HBO series, which may go unnoticed by some readers. It is thirteen pages before Atticus Turner stumbles across a copy of The Outsider and Others (1939), the first collection of H. P. Lovecraft’s work from Arkham House. Thirteen pages of seemingly pointless discrimination against a black man, Army veteran, trying to do something as simple as drive from Jacksonville, Florida to Chicago, Illinois.

Except it isn’t pointless; it is the sole point of Matt Ruff’s novel. As much as readers and critics might like to focus on Lovecraft and his contemporaries, science fiction and weird fiction, in exclusion to the realities of Jim Crow and segregation—race and prejudice—they were a part of it, and it informed their fiction. Privilege, for white people, is not having to think too hard about it.

It’s old. It’s just the way it was. Can’t change it.

But we as readers can change the way we read it. Can understand the context in which a story was written, try to empathize with what it might be like to be an African-American and read Lovecraft’s “On the Creation of Niggers” for the first time…which is where, fifteen pages in, Ruff’s novel starts to fall apart.

The poem was written circa 1912, during a period when Lovecraft as a young man wrote ultra-nationalist and xenophobic poetry, long before he was a horror writer or connected to amateur journalism; the text Ruff uses to introduce the poem to Atticus is a complete fiction. Lovecraft never published “On the Creation…” during his lifetime; there are no mentions of it in any of his published letters, nor in any of the memoirs of his life. It was not revealed to the public until 1975 when L. Sprague de Camp published in his flawed book H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography, and for much the same reason that Ruff inserts it here: graphic, undeniable shorthand that Lovecraft was racist.

Ruff’s mention of the poem is less lazy than economic: nothing else Lovecraft wrote has the N-word in the title, and Arkham House had made a point of not emphasizing (and occasionally denying) that aspect of his life. “Medusa’s Coil” was published in Arkham House’s The Curse of Yig (1953), but that collection was released under Zealia Bishop’s name, not Lovecraft’s, and the ending censored. The first volume of the Selected Letters would not be published until 1964, and that too was censored. Ruff could have dug into Lovecraft’s fiction for an N-word—in “The Picture in the House” or “The Rats in the Walls”—but it was no doubt easier and faster to create a convenient fiction.

While the cast (predominantly African-American, with a black protagonist) and setting (1950s United States) may be relatively novel for the Mythos, relatively little else in Ruff’s novel is. Atticus Turner exists in a world where both Lovecraft’s fiction is a reality and where some iteration of the Mythos is apparently real; the same basic premise as August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945) and Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1979). Once the first connections are made, it’s a road trip to Lovecraft Country, with The Safe Negro Travel Guide as psychopomp for the journey.

It’s difficult not to compare Lovecraft Country with “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, released the same year and covering some of the same thematic ground. LaValle’s worth benefits from brevity: it is difficult to maintain the mood and suspense of the short story at novel length. So too, LaValle had the courage for a downer ending. Not everybody has to live, or come out whole. More importantly, perhaps, “The Ballad of Black Tom” is a story of the Mythos—Lovecraft Country, despite the title, is not.

There is one tantalizing suggestion of a connection: that Lovecraft’s Arkham might have really been Ardham, that the tentacled Scylla might be the inspiration for Lovecraft’s shoggoths…but the farther in the reader gets to the novel, the less connection it has to Lovecraft and the Mythos. The initial set-up, in that first 13 pages, was for a dive into the Mythos from an entirely different perspective. What it delivers, ultimately, is a rather conventional occult thriller with a somewhat unconventional cast.

Lovecraft Country, it should be emphasized, is not a bad book. Matt Ruff did a fair amount of research, it shows in every chapter. His prose is solid, his characters well-developed, the plot is effective. It simply isn’t what it could be, or really what it promised to be. The name itself is a great hook, the premise it sets up is excellent, but this isn’t a book that dives into the thick of racism in the time of Lovecraft, or the Mythos he and his contemporaries created. A drive into a Massachusetts town where a freemason lodge practices real magic is not a journey into Lovecraft country.

What this book needed was some greater revelation. Some attempt to reconcile the everyday horrors of being African-American in the United States in 1954 and the cosmic horrors of the Mythos. Something like Harlem Unbound (2017), but in narrative form. Lovecraft Country didn’t have that. It never even aspired to it.


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

 

“Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, Medusa’s Coil

Sex is an intimate aspect of racial prejudice and stereotyping in the United States. The word in Lovecraft’s day for interracial sexual relationships was miscegenation; in many parts of the country during the 1930s interracial marriages were illegal and socially taboo. Charges of rape against white women spurred outrage in high-profile cases like the Massie trial and Scottsboro Boys; an attempted sexual assault by a black man is one of the key elements of Thomas F. Dixon, Jr.’s The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan (1905), which was adapted into a play and then the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which in turn led to the re-formation of the Ku Klux Klan.

Lovecraft had seen the play and the film; he would discuss the Massie and Scottsboro Boys trials with correspondents like Robert E. Howard and J. Vernon Shea. Given his prejudices, it is not surprising that sex across the colour line rarely finds an explicit reference in Lovecraft’s fiction, except in some individual of mixed race heritage—although many readers find allegorical examples in “Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn and His Family” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Even in subsequent works by other authors working in the Mythos it is uncommon to find interracial couples. While less taboo today than in the 1930s, the taboo remains powerful.

The power of the interracial taboo, however, makes it very attractive for erotic literature. The kink has been approached any number of ways by different authors, playing up to racial stereotypes of sexual attitudes, genitalia size, and behavior to fantasy scenarios based on historical stereotypes. Visually, the contrast between the actors can often be distinct and dramatic, but the real eroticism is often based on the centuries of emotion and social mores built into the culture—sometimes playing to these prejudices via depicting rape, slavery, degradation, or going against these prejudices by depicting positive interracial relationships that nonetheless emphasize cultural and physical differences between the players involved.

Lovecraftian erotica very rarely takes on the issue of race, but there are at least two notable exceptions: “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper, and “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” (2016) by Raine Roka. The difference in their approach highlight aspects of both Lovecraft’s prejudices in his life and the Mythos, and make for an interesting comparison and contrast.

“Koenigsberg’s Model” is Tupper’s love letter to Jack Kirby, Joe Shuster, and H. P. Lovecraft, more or less in that order. Comic books were the direct heirs of pulp fiction, often sharing many of the same writers and artists, and just as pulpsters wrote for the Spicy pulps to get paid, several notable comic book artists moonlit creating erotic drawings and comic books—as chronicled in Secret Identity: The Fetish Art of Superman’s Co-Creator Joe ShusterTupper’s protagonist, Miskatonic graduate student Rick, is on the hunt for exactly this kind of secret smut for his thesis…and finds more than he bargained for in the notebook of comic book artist Jozsef Koenigsberg (Jack “King” Kirby’s original name was Jacob Kurtzburg; “König” is German for “King.”)

Tupper has fun in the story mixing history and pseudohistory; like many of the best Mythos stories, “Koenigsberg’s Model” has all the attention to detail of a good hoax, dropping the titles of real-life historical volumes of erotica along with Mythos tomes like Nameless Cults. His research shifts to Koenigsberg’s sketch of a beautiful black woman, and ultimately the eponymous model.

Everywhere Rick went in Koenigsberg’s prodigious imagination, there was an enigmatic, dark woman, remote yet seductive, a dispenser of cryptic knowledge, taller than most men, with the same sly Mona Lisa smile and all-knowing eyes looking out of the page. Regardless of genre, Koenigsberg always invested his considerable talents in conveying the woman’s sensuality and charisma. Free Agent of the New Pantheon was guided by a black giantess named No-Sys. Hardboiled detective Johnny Grace matched wits with a dark-haired femme fatale named Jette savvee. Even the downtown Kids took advice from the spooky Widow Sable in Harlem.
—Peter Tupper, “Koenigsberg’s Model”

The turn, as in a good deal of Lovecraftian erotica, brings not just revelation but sexual release. Koenigsberg’s Model is someone more than Rick’s fantasies of curvaceous, imposing black women with hourglass hips…and while many stories end there, Tupper goes a little further beyond that first revelation, drawing Rick a little deeper into his studies and holding up his racial fetishization as if it was a jewel to be examined in the light from different angles, touching on early imprinting, differences in size, shifting from being sexually dominant to submissive…and, by contrast, with how others approach the same material:

A tall, thin man with an elongated face huddled in the gap in the wall, curled up in a featful ball. “We are not pure, we are born of things from beyond the stars, the crawling chaos…” he muttered.
—Peter Tupper, “Koenigsberg’s Model”

What marks Tupper’s story out as exceptional is that it goes beyond being just erotica; it is an onion of secrets, peeled back one layer at a time, challenging what Rick—and the readers—think they know about themselves. In this sense, the interracial aspect is something of a red herring or a white lie, the first step toward a deeper understanding. The focus on race by Rick an unforced error, an artifact of not being able to see the world as it really is…and that in itself might be a quiet commentary on racism and prejudice.

“The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” by Raine Roka takes a different tack. Essentially a sequel to Lovecraft’s “Facts in the Case of Arthur Jermyn and His Family” and part of a brief trend among ebook erotica focusing on ape-men, in Roka’s story African-American anthropologist Dr. Amanda Carey meets Sir Mark Jermyn, last descendant of the infamous family that was not extinguished at the conclusion of Lovecraft’s tale. She’s arrived to do research on British colonialism and its effects on the world…and ends up studying the strapping, tall, ape-like baronet.

Lovecraft’s original tale of a British explorer who finds and weds a “white ape” princess in Africa borrows more than a little from Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan stories and La of Opar, albeit with a more visceral, tragic twist. Allegorical readings of the tale can get complicated: following the idea that apes were less evolved than human beings, many white supremacists during the 1920s—including Lovecraft—described or compared black people to apes to emphasize their “primitiveness,” so the overall idea of a wife from Africa and children who show ape-like traits can be taken as an horrific fable of miscegenation…if you ignore Tarzan angle, and the fact that these are white apes.

What Lovecraft appears to be suggesting is that the inahbitants of the primeval African city of “white apes” are not only the “missing link” between ape and human but also the ulimate source for all white civilization. The entire white race is derived from this primal race in Africa, a race that had corrupted itself by intermingling with apes. This is the only explanation for the narrator’s opening statement, “If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did [i.e., commit suicide]”: we may not have a white ape in our immediate ancestry, but we are all the products of an ultimate miscengeation.
—S. T. JoshiThe Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories 365

Joshi’s basic idea had been developed in fiction in stories like “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo. Roka’s approach to the material echoes Tupper in that there is a focus on the real-world beliefs that underwrote Lovecraft’s original story, name-dropping Lord Monboddo and Thomas Love Peacock for their early thoughts on evolution and the relations of humans and apes, but there are other readings that go into “The Ape in Me” as well.

Mark Jermyn might be the descendent of an ape princess, but he is still explicitly white and a member of the British peerage, while Dr. Carey is not, preserving the explicit difference between the players, but while there is mutual attraction neither Carey or Jermyn has an explicit racial fetish—that’s for the audience to project. Tupper presents Koeningsberg’s model as a figure of mystery, but Wade’s heritage makes him almost a figure of monstrous deformity and pity, “privileged but outcast.” The nature of his heritage allows a writer to use terms to describe him that would be racist if applied to a black man.

Unlike Tupper, there is more focus on actual sex than revelation-that-happens-to-be-sexual; while Roka touches on some of colonialism and racism, the main thrust of the story is the two ending up in bed. Even if Roka’s approach is somewhat more superficial, there is one final statement that might strike home for readers:

The contrast between his pale skin and my light-brown flesh is rather fetching. Imagine the gossip in the village, all that looking askance, if I were to become the next Lady Jermyn! Well,s tranger things have happened, and we are both of African descent, albeit by different and rather tortuous paths.
—Raine Roka, “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!”

The Out-of-Africa Theory is at the crux of racial prejudice surrounding evolution; ultimately all human beings are the same species descended from a common ancestor, and the biological variations which scientific racialists tried to codify in Lovecraft’s day are largely cosmetic. The idea that all humans are essentially the same undercuts racial prejudice; the horror of miscegenation and the sexual thrill of racial fetishization are based on social conceptions of race, not biological ones. The two states of excitement are closely intertwined, and while Lovecraft plays with the horror of facing “the Other” in this way, Roka plays with the sensuality of it.

Tupper and Roka are ultimately playing with related themes, albeit both are taking off from Lovecraft in very different directions. Race in their stories serves as a complication to their character’s relationships with other characters, and during the course of the stories these characters come to face their own conceptions of race, and to some degree how that conception defines or re-defines their idea of humanity.

“Koenigsberg’s Model” by Peter Tupper was published in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011, Circlet Press). It has not been reprinted.

“The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” (2016) by Raine Roka was published as an Amazon Kindle ebook; it is currently not available on the Kindle store. Roka is also the author of “Shaggoth: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust!” (2015).


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

“The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle

For H. P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings.
—Victor LaValle, dedication to The Ballad of Black Tom

Harlem is no longer terra incognita for the Cthulhu Mythos. Harlem Unbound (2017) details the historical Harlem of the 20s and 30s for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, writers like Peter Cannon feature in briefly in fiction such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon. But when Lovecraft lived in New York and wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” inspired by the slums of Brooklyn where he found himself, alone in a single apartment in 1925, he only mentions Harlem in his letters—he did not try to set fiction there, did not try to put himself in the shoes of a black man in New York City.

Victor LaValle’s novella The Ballad of Black Tom goes where Lovecraft did not go, and explores the viewpoints that the man from Providence did not. The plot is as straightforward and deceptively simple as it ambitious: to take a story where Lovecraft vents his spleen against the city of immigrants he found himself in, and look at it from another point of view. A basic premise that conceals a thousand little complications…

Like many authors who have elaborated on Lovecraft’s Mythos, LaValle cannot help adding his own little contribution: Zig zag zig, the Supreme Alphabet. This is part of the doctrine of the Five-Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was founded in Harlem in 1964. The name comes from the idea that ten percent of the world knows the truth, and keeps eighty-five percent of the world ignorant; only five percent know the truth and work to enlighten the rest. Its presence in 1925 might be an anachronism, but the Five-Percenter-based mysticism integrates well with the Mythos on this point; certainly no worse than the Jewish Cabbala does in Lovecraft’s original story.

In addressing Lovecraft’s original narrative, LaValle keeps the basic timeline and series of events—even incorporating bits and pieces of Lovecraft’s original, distinct language, putting them into the mouths of characters like Suydam and Det. Malone, who are both retained. What he jettisons are the worst of Lovecraft’s racism and mythology.

“The Horror at Red Hook” was written before “The Call of Cthulhu,” and in place of Lovecraft’s Mythos is a confused mishmash borrowed from articles on the occult and demonology from the Encyclopedia Britannica. LaValle’s tying together of “Red Hook” with the later mythology actually strengthens the story considerably from Lovecraft’s original.

The xenophobia and bigotry of Lovecraft’s original is muted, seen through a different lens. The Ballad of Black Tom is a black man’s story, and the main character’s positive relations with Black British immigrants from the Caribbean, the cosmopolitan mixing-pot of the Victoria Society, is emphasized.

If there is one criticism for the story, it is embodied in a single character:

“I felt in danger for my life,” Mr. Howard said. “I emptied my revolver. Then I reloaded and did it again.”
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 65

“Ervin Howard” is the private detective that murders Otis Tester. A “lawman down in Texas long ago” (ibid. 81), he is an out-an-out bigot, violent, unscrupulous. The kind of man that could get away with killing a black man with impunity in the 1920s—and does. The violence and the bigotry are not reasons to criticize the character; Howard is pivotal to LaValle’s narrative as the catalyst for Black Tom’s transformation. The name is the thing.

Robert Ervin Howard was a pulp writer from Cross Plains, Texas—he would turn 19 years old in 1925, and his first story in Weird Tales would be published in that year. In 1930, Howard would begin a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft that would last the rest of his life. The Texan would commit suicide in 1936, after creating a number of popular serial characters including Solomon Kane, King Kull, and Conan the Cimmerian, all of whom would go on to enjoy literary and cinematic afterlives.

The choice to use Howard as a kind of rotten Easter Egg in The Ballad of Black Tom is a strange one. Certainly, Lovecraft and Howard were both racists and white supremacists; their shared correspondence published as A Means to Freedom illustrates the commonality of prejudice from men living in very disparate parts of the United States during the 1930s. But Howard had nothing to do with “The Horror at Red Hook,” though he had read the story when it appeared in Weird Tales and praised Lovecraft for it. So the choice of name seems odd, and perhaps a bit needless.

The character, however, is essential.

Those six men fired fifty-six rounds at Black Tom.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 134

Injustice is the central theme of the African-American narrative in the United States. From slavery to segregation, from the struggle for civil rights to Black Lives Matter, both the black population as a whole and the individual have struggled as the eternal underdogs, a minority population that faces naked prejudice, misrepresentation, and institutional inequality. In the 1920s, Jim Crow was the law of the land. In 2014, Michael Brown was fatally shot by a white police officer, nominally in self-defense. Same story, different decade. In LaValle’s narrative, it is this injustice which fuels Tommy Tester’s transformation into Black Tom. The cruelty of the world drives him to the kind of misanthropy which marked Lovecraft’s own darkest narratives.

It would be a misrepresentation to say that in the narrative of The Ballad of Black Tom, it is ultimately Tommy Tester’s interaction with white people (and, by extension, the police) that drives the whole story. That would imply that Tester was at fault, that if he had only stayed in his place, all would be well. Yet is that the case? The murder of Tester’s father at the hands of Howard is presented as business-as-usual; the impact of the event is not so much that it happened as that the systems of justice meant to prevent it from happening don’t apply to black people. The system was broken, long before Tommy Tester appeared in it; if it had not been Howard that shot his father, it might have been another white man on another day—and the result would be the same.

The second half of the narrative belongs to Det. Thomas J. Malone—here, treated much less sympathetically in Lovecraft’s narrative. Malone’s prejudices are less explicit than Howard’s, but he watches and does nothing, gives orders and expects to be obeyed. Malone is sympathetic to Suydam, because he can relate to him; the detective never expresses the same sympathies to Tommy Tester. The supreme shock to Malone’s system is the eye-opening experience when he realizes that “The Horror at Red Hook” is really Black Tom’s story, not Suydam’s. As revelations go, it’s a good one.

A man originally from Rhode Island but now living in Brooklyn with his wife proved so persistent a pair of officers was sent to the man’s place to make clear he wasn’t welcome in New York. Perhaps his constitution was better suited to Providence. The man left the city soon afterward, never to return.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 136

This is the final knowing-wink that LaValle gives to the reader, and not without reason.

H. P. Lovecraft married his wife and moved to Flatbush in Brooklyn in May 1924; in December of that year he would move into a room in Brooklyn Heights, his wife traveling to work and visiting him only periodically. It was during the following 15 month interval of living alone in New York City that Lovecraft wrote “The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air,” and began the research and writing of his seminal essay Supernatural Horror in Literature; “The Call of Cthulhu” was conceived during this period, but not written until after he returned to Providence in 1926. He would return to New York many times before his death in 1937, but only for visits with friends or his wife, never to live there again.

The shadow of H. P. Lovecraft hangs over The Ballad of Black Tom, and to an extent the entire Mythos. Writers who seek to explore his works look for the bits unwritten—and Victor LaValle found one, a rich country which Lovecraft had, deliberately or not, overlooked as he sought to realize the horrors of New York City in the 1920s. The success of The Ballad of Black Tom lies not so much in writing a Mythos novel set in Harlem, but in bringing the feel and flavor of Harlem, and what it meant to be a black man in Lovecraft’s New York, to readers who had never considered that before—and while it may not have redeemed “The Horror at Red Hook,” LaValle offers readers a new and powerful perspective on the story.


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