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 Horror, which 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).