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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One example of an event that we can confirm:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

To ye memory of August William Derleth
—original dedication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, Pugmire’s dedication.

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

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

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

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

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

In an afterword to this story, Pugmire wrote:

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

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

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


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

“Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer

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

They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in those realms where the Pole Star shines high and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years, and never a man save squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Polaris”

At the end of the 19th century, the Yellow Peril or Yellow Terror had gripped the imagination of the Western world; works such as weird fiction author M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger; Or, what Might Happen in the Division of the Chinese Empire Should Estrange all European Countries (1898) were pure invective, fueling racist and Orientalist fantasies about Asia and the prospect of a global conflict on the lines not of nation-states, but of race. The victory of an industrialized Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) stoked these fears, and a year before the Great War broke out found an avatar in Dr. Fu Manchu, the villainous star of what would become thirteen novels by Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu would inspire hundreds of copycats, not a few of whom appeared in Weird Tales, and even by favorite authors; Robert E. Howard’s “Kathulos” from the serial “Skull-Face” (1929) definitely has Fu Manchu in its literary DNA. The Yellow Peril, in more generalized form, would be familiar in Weird Tales throughout its entire run from 1923-1954, as was the case in many pulps.

Throughout his life H. P. Lovecraft was clear in his genuine belief in the Yellow Peril, at least as an impending threat. One passage from a letter will suffice to give the general substance of this racialist paranoia, although in many other instances Lovecraft wrote admiringly of Japanese culture and aesthetics, and of Japanese actors and artists:

Of Japan I have not so far spoken, because I think it a certain enemy of the future, which no plan can permanently make a friend. It demands free access to Anglo-Saxon soil for its citizens, and this can never be given. Orientals must be kept in their native East till the fall of the white race. Sooner or later a great Japanese war will take place, during which I think the virtual destruction of Japan will have to be effected in the interests of European safety. The more numerous Chinese are a menace of the still more distant future. They will probably be the exterminators of Caucasian civilisation, for their numbers are amazing. But that is all too far ahead for consideration today.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Sep 1919, Letters to Alfred Galpin 57

Despite this belief, which was relatively common during the period, the Yellow Peril is scarce in Lovecraft’s fiction. He never quite develops a Fu Manchu type character, the cult in “The Horror at Red Hook” has overtones of the multiethnic criminal enterprise of Rohmer’s villain, the “corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng” in “The Hound” is located in Central Asia, and Castro in “The Call of Cthulhu” claims that he has spoken to the “undying leaders of the cult in the mountains of China,” likely a reference to the mythical Shambala and the claims of the Theosophical Society to receive their guidance from the Great White Brotherhood in Asia. There are only two stories where the idea of a racial conflict on these lines is suggested in Lovecraft’s fiction: a glancing reference in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (“that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia”) written with E. Hoffmann Price, and the very short story “Polaris.”

The story came from an odd start. In 1918, Lovecraft was arguing about religion in one of his letters, which led to a discussion of truth and recalling a recent dream:

Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city—a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills. There was not a soul in this vast region of stone-paved streets and marble walls and columns, and the numerous statues in the public places were of strange bearded men in robes the like whereof I have never seen before or since. […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 15 May 1918, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 70

Shortly thereafter, Lovecraft shaped the dream into “Polaris,” about a man who dreams (or is possessed by the spirit) of an ancestor from 26,000 years before, in the land of Lomar situated in the far north. This would be familiar to audiences at the time as a reference to racialist theories of Caucasians originating from Northern Europe. Lomar is under peril from the Inutos—and these are explicitly Asian stereotypes, which Lovecraft near the end directly associates them with the Inuit people, foreshadowing his reference to the “degenerate Esquimaux” in “The Call of Cthulhu” a decade later.

At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s racialist beliefs were strongly influenced by Thomas Henry Huxley, who categorized the Inuit and other Native Americans and trans-polar peoples as “Mongoloids” alongside many Asian ethnicities. Lovecraft typically shortened this to reference to “Mongolians” or “Mongols,” regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The fantasy racism that Lovecraft engages in here, equating a contemporary group of people with a mythical precursor, was not unknown—the entire “Lost Race” subgenre of scientific romance depends on such linkages, and the basic ideology can be seen in Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” (1936) essay and in some of the worldbuilding of J. R. R. Tolkien, who at the same time was crafting what would the background of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lrod of the Rings (1955).

Lovecraft’s use of the term “Esquimau” and its plural “Esquimaux” was a touch archaic in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, but not necessarily intended as a pejorative. The term “Eskimo” was in general use (as evidenced by the 1933 film Eskimo, which Lovecraft had seen), and Lovecraft’s preference for the older form an apparent affection. The term “Inutos” suggests he was at least aware of the term “Inuit,” even if he chose not to use it; the suffix “-os” would make the name match the other pseudo-Grecian names in the story. While there are no contemporary accounts of Lovecraft’s thoughts on the Inuit, later in life his few references in his letters categorize them as a “degenerate offshoot” of the “Mongolian race.” (A Means to Freedom 1.482) This was a very typical distinction for Lovecraft to make, when regarding a culture that he was generally ignorant of but perceived as “primitive” compared to contemporary (and white) civilization.

Which is a great deal to unpack from a few lines in a story of a little over 1,500 words. Nor was it an immediate success; Lovecraft shared it in the amateur Transatlantic Circular, and it was published in the amateur journal The Philosopher in 1920. In 1925, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, but it was rejected as a “prose-poem.” In 1931, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Harry Bates at Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, who likewise rejected it, and in 1932 to Carl Swanson’s projected magazine Galaxy, which never came out. “Polaris” was finally reprinted in the fanzine The Fantasy Fan (Feb 1934), where it was well-received by readers. The first professional publication of “Polaris” was posthumous, in Weird Tales (Dec 1937). August Derleth and Donald Wandrei included it in their initial Arkham House publication The Outsider and Others (1939), sealing its place in the Lovecraft canon.

That wasn’t necessarily the case. Lovecraft had a soft spot for the little tale, but soured on it nearer the end of his life:

“Polaris” is a sort of semi-favourite of mine—written in 1918 & therefore largely experimental.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Aug 1930,
Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 229

I’ve expunged both from my list of acknowledged writings—relating them to the oblivion now enjoyed by such failures as “The Street” & “Juan Romero”. Before long I shall strike other times out in the same way—”The Tree”, “Polaris”, “The Hound”, “The White Ship”, “He”, & perhaps a few more. It doesn’t do me any good to have my name associated with absurd crap.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 120

The real legacy of “Polaris” and the impact it had on Lovecraft and his writings is that the idea of Lomar as this mythical ancient northern land became an intertextual element in Lovecraft’s fiction, mentioned in “The Other Gods,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Mound” (with Zealia Bishop), At the Mountains of Madness, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (with E. Hoffmann Price), and “The Horror in the Museum” (with Hazel Heald), and “The Shadow out of Time,” which contains Lovecraft’s only other reference to the Inutos:

I talked […] with that of a king of Lomar who had ruled that terrible polar land 100,000 years before the squat, yellow Inutos came from the west to engulf it […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”

Which is where things get a little weird. In “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Lovecraft says:

[…] the hairy cannibal Gnophkehs overcame many-templed Olathoë and slew all the heroes of the land of Lomar.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

Just to make things complicated, a very different entity with a similar name and geographic bound is given in another story:

A small bulge in the canvas far to the right suggested the sharp horn of Gnoph-keh, the hairy myth-thing of the Greenland ice, that walked sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, and sometimes on six.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”

The accounts are contradictory and at a glance irreconcilable; it is difficult to tell if Lovecraft was deliberately muddying the waters of his own Mythos, or if his conception of what caused the fall of Lomar had shifted from 1918 when he wrote “Polaris” to 1926 when he wrote “Dream-Quest” to 1932 when he wrote “The Horror in the Museum” for Hazel Heald. Later writers made efforts to gloss these contradictions, which resulted in stories such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price.

It is too much to suggest that Lovecraft made the change from Inutos to Gnophkehs because he recognized the Yellow Peril influence of the work and wished to change it; the last appearance of the Inutos is in “The Shadow out of Time,” written in 1934, and there is no evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that his basic prejudices regarding the Inuit changed substantially by that point in his life.

When we talk about talk about the effect that Lovecraft’s prejudices had on his fiction, and by extension the fiction of other writers, it is not necessarily the very blatant examples of an N-word in print, or even the infamous ending to “Medusa’s Coil.” It is the much more subtle impact of racialist thought and tropes, however common and accepted they may have been in Lovecraft’s time, which persist as part of the Mythos. The Inutos, thankfully, are not especially pervasive in the wider Cthulhu Mythos; Lomar and Gnoph-Keh/the gnophkehs are more popular.

This is not always the case.

One of us was home for the summer from a year of teaching at a military academy in Missouri and preparing for post-graduate work at Wisconsin and Harvard, the other was back to stay in Sauk City, Wisconsin, having resigned an editorial position with Fawcett Publications in order to do or die as a writer. Though both our homes were in Sauk City, we chose not to work in them but to rent what had once been a summer cottage on the village’s main street, just north of the business section, in a relatively quite zone on the west bank of the Wisconsin. […] the method of work was this—the basic outline for each story was set down by Derleth, the entire first draft then written by Schorer, a final revision made by Derleth. […] he went over the manuscript, sometimes rewriting, sometimes simply retyping selected pages or paragraphs; and prepared the story for submission—usually to Weird Tales or Strange Tales, and rounded out the evening by outlining the next story to be done.
—August Derleth & Mark Schorer, Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People

The industrious collaboration during the summer of 1931 netted the two young writers 17 stories, one of which was a Mythos story titled “The Statement of Eric Marsh,” echoing Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” and it would introduce a new element to the expanding artificial mythology:

Though your major field will probably be much broader, you nevertheless have a very distinct aptitude for convincing spectral creation; & it would be a pity if things like the Tcho-Tchos & Rigelian daemons were to remain for ever unchronicled.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.354

Herewith the Tcho-Tcho story, The Statement of Eric Marsh; I don’t like the story. Have you any suggestions for a better one? But then, the story is rotten, too.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Aug 1931, ES1.365

As for a new title—how would “The City of Elder Evil” do? Or “The Lair of the Star-Spawn”? I’m not much for fancy titles, but I presume something on this order is what you’re looking for. I shall undoubtedly use the Tcho-Tchos in some later story—let Wright say what he please!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 26 Aug 1931, ES1.367

“The Lair of the Star-Spawn” became the title; the story was accepted and published in Weird Tales (Aug 1932). Among the elements that Derleth & Schorer added or referenced in the story were the Tcho-Tcho:

It is true that strange legends had reached us, even before we had left Ho-Nan province, of a weird race of little people, wo whom the natives applied the odd name, Tcho-Tcho, supposedly living near or on the Plateau of Sung.

So the Hawk Expedition proceeded into Burma (present-day Myanmar). The story in many ways is a very typical Lost World/Lost Race narrative, comparable to H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core (1914), Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (1933) and “Red Nails” (1936), C. L. Moore’s “The Tree of Life” (1936), and many others—only with a Mythos twist, as the Tcho-Tcho are servants of Lloigor and Zhar. The descriptions of them are stereotypical:

[…] the tallest of them no more than four feet, with singularly small eyes set deep in dome-like, hairless heads. These queer attackers fell upon the party and had killed men and animals with their bright swords almost before our men could extract their weapons. […]

The Tcho-Tcho people could not believe them dead, since it is impossible for them to conceive of such a weapon as a gun. At base, they are very simple people. Yet they are inherently malevolent, for they now that they are working for the destruction of all that is good in the world. […]

Then the Old Ones, the Elder Gods, returned to the stars of Orion, leaving behind them ever-damned Cthulhu, Lloigor, Zhar, and others. But the evil ones left seeds on the plateau, on the island in the Lake of Dread which the Old Ones caused to be put here. Anf rom these seeds have sprung the Tcho-Tcho people, the spawn of elder evil, and now these people await the day when Loloigor and Zhar will rise again and sweep over all the earth!

Damning an entire species to be unapologetically or uncomplicatedly “evil” from birth is a gross oversimplification—but easy moralities play well in politics, pulp stories, and fairytales; J. R. R. Tolkien would do much the same thing with Orcs in his legendarium, with all the unfortunate implications still being worked out decades later. It’s not necessarily a problem of having a group of antagonists depicted as irredeemable—its the use of racialist language, ideas, and reasoning behind it.

Like the Inutos of “Polaris,” the Tcho-Tcho are depicted as aggressive, primitive, and adversarial to the main viewpoint of the story; Lovecraft doesn’t make the Inutos explicitly evil (or the men of Lomar good), but the framing of the story as a quasi-fable of the Yellow Peril would establish those relationships with the readers. Derleth & Schorer are if anything more explicit, even if they make the Tcho-Tcho a “race apart,” from both the Caucasian Eric Marsh and the Chinese Dr. Fo-Lan.

If it had been a one-off story where the Tcho-Tcho were never mentioned again, this would be worthy of a footnote—none of them appear to survive the end of Derleth & Schorer’s tale, though Derleth references them again in “The Thing That Walked On the Wind” (1933) and a few later stories; “The Sandwin Compact” (1940) moves them from Burma to Tibet—but of course, it didn’t end there.

“Do you remember,” he shouted, “what I told you about that ruined city in Indo-China where the Tcho-Tchos lived? You had to admit I’d been there when you saw the photographs, even if you did think I made that oblong swimmer in darkness out of wax. If you’d seen it writhing in the underground pools as I did. . . .”
—H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”

Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”

Lovecraft doesn’t expand much on the original conception of the Tcho-Tcho, aside from adding the “s” for a plural; he places them alongside the Serpent-People of Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” the Voormi of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” and his own Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness—all in good fun, just an inside joke for astute readers and members of the gang. Yet it cemented, if that was necessary, the Tcho-Tcho as part of the Mythos.

For many readers the occasional references to the Tcho-Tcho people encountered in Cthulhu Mythos fiction do not really register. Aren’t these hard-to-prounounce people just one more of the so-called “servitor-races” of the Old Ones? So what?
—Robert M. Price and Tani Jantsang, “The True History of the Tcho Tcho People”
in Crypt of Cthulhu #51, 24

Unlike the Inutos, several later authors decided to elaborate on the Tcho-Tcho, to various purpose and effect. The term “servitor-races” that Price and Jantsang use is particular to the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, and is exemplary of the problem that the Tcho-Tcho embody: the long shadow of the Yellow Peril, sliding uncomfortably into the contemporary day. Call of Cthulhu came out of Runequest which came out of Dungeons & Dragons, which based itself on the borrowed racialist terminology of later 19th and early 20th century popular fiction: scientific romance, science fiction, fantasy, pulp fiction, Lost World and Lost Race tales, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber…and more, but the gist is that in the translation to the roleplaying milieu, the Tcho-Tcho, Deep Ones, and other strange critters of the Mythos were translated into D&D-esque terms: where Tolkien (and thus D&D) had “races” of Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Humans, CoC had Humans, Deep Ones, Serpent People, Voormis, and Tcho-Tcho.

The habit of thinking of groups of sentient humanoid entities as biologically and culturally distinct from anatomically modern humans and essentially not human and morally irredeemable can be problematic in and of itself—there are plenty of parallels to scientific racialism and racial discrimination, which some authors of the Mythos have explored, such as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys.

In the case of the Tcho-Tcho, there are added wrinkles: their original placement in Southeast Asia, and subsequent movement around Asia by different authors, their depiction as inherently autochthonous and antagonistic to “human” life, and their initial description aspects of Asian visual stereotypes (short stature, different eyes), has allowed them to pick up several more Yellow Peril characteristics in their general depiction. Many Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game products, including spin-offs like Delta Green, depict the Tcho-Tcho as Asian characters, often conflating them with negative stereotypes as criminals and drug-dealers.

The issue of the Inutos and the Tcho-Tcho is a problem that transcends the Cthulhu Mythos. Those are symptoms, the result of many different writers working independently toward different goals, not stepping back to consider where some of the conceptions they were using came from or how they were being used. Fantasy racism can be used to explore some of the consequences of real-life racial discrimination and prejudice in a way that echoes the experience of ethnic minorities without calling them out…and it can be used very lazily, so that Tcho-Tcho (or Orcs,  etc.) can serve as easy villains and faceless fodder for the heroes to kill without moral compunction.

It is seductively easy to use stereotypes to apply to entire groups of people. That’s why pulp fictioneers did it; painting with a broad brush, using tropes the readers were familiar with, they could sketch out stories quickly and the reader could suspend disbelief. It is also why many people use it today; discrimination is terribly easy, appreciating the nuance and complexity of human relationships and seeing them as individuals rather than representatives of a group is hard.

Perhaps because of the initial complexity of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and their tremendous popularity, the Deep Ones have gotten a lot of attention and engendered a good deal of sympathy from later Mythos writers. The Tcho-Tcho have not attracted anything like the same level of development or empathy, and have fallen into a very weird space where they have largely become “acceptable villains” in Mythos roleplay and fiction—and, if they have not already, are in danger of becoming nothing more than a Mythos-flavored Yellow Peril.


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