“The Mound” (1940) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I found Lovecraft diffident but very gallant, with a gallantry of an era we only read about in mid-Victorian literature. In our conversation we discusses among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma […]
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259

After the successful sale of “The Curse of Yig,” Zealia Brown Reed appeared eager, and Lovecraft willing, to pursue a second ghost-writing job, in between his other revision work—Zealia still pursuing other stories and submitting them to, among other places, Weird Tales and Cupid’s Diary. The extent of her involvement in “The Mound” was apparently substantially less than in “The Curse of Yig,” at least according to Lovecraft:

I hade hoped to be able to send along the weird Indian tale when replying to yours of the 11th, but once more the Fates were against me. It is fortunate that you are in no haste for it, & I surely hope I can produce a good piece of work when I am at last able to undertake the construction. No—There is not any other story-nucleus in my possession. The only one is the cryptic Oklahoma mound & its taciturn guardians.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 28 Oct 1928, The Spirit of Revision 135

My next real bill will come when I deliver the Indian ghost story, a thing I intend to do as soon as I recover enough mental & nervous energy to resume creative work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 22 Jan 1929, The Spirit of Revision 138

As soon as I finish my current De Castro quota I shall tackle another incident-germ (“plot-germ” would be too flattering a designation!” of Mrs. Reed’s producing a story which will be virtually my own. I hope (mildly, because I’ll get my $20.00 anyhow!) Wright will take it when he’s done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 21 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.225

My chief—& sufficiently submerging—occupation is concocting what will pass as a tale by the author of “Yig”, though it will really be altogether my own, as woven around the merest non-plot suggestion. It is getting to be almost a novelette—& I’ll be curious to see how you like it if it ever gets into print. The provisional name is “The Mound.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Dec 1929, Essential Solitude 1.231

That St. Louis mound item is of especial interest to me just now, insomuch as my current job is the weaving of a tale around a similar thing in Oklahoma. The alleged author intended to let the story go as a simple tale of a haunted mound, with a couple of Indian ghosts around it; but I decided at once that such a thing would be insufferable tame & flat. Accordingly I am having the mound turn out to be the gateway of a primordial & forgotten subterranean world—the home of a fearsomely ancient & decadent race cut off from the outer earth since the prehistoric sinking of fabulous Atlantis & Lemuria. In the course of the tale I introduce a man who descends into the abyss—a Spaniard of Coronado’s expedition of 1541—& another, in the present age who begins a descent but very hastily returns to the upper air after seeing a certain thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 118

The gist of Lovecraft’s comments on the story as it was being written in 1929 suggest a very simple premise. R. H. Barlow, who re-typed the story in 1934, records the original plot-germ on the typescript as:

There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.

In Caddo County, Oklahoma there are a group of rocky hills—actual hills, not earthen mounds such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois—known as the Caddo Mounds, near the small towns of Binger and Hydro. Two of these in particular have been suggested as the ultimate source for Zealia’s transmitted legend: Ghost Mound and Dead Woman’s Mound. Original accounts are sparse, but newspaper articles provide some insight into what she may have heard from the Comptons:

ghostmound-page-001
“The Legend of Ghost Mound” by Ferdie J. Deering, The Daily Oklahoman, 4 Apr 1965
GhostMound
The Daily Oklahoman, 29 Oct 1987

Less has been recorded in print about Dead Woman or Dead Woman’s Mound, although there is an account from resident Laura Cox Brand in the 1930s which may give the flavor of local legends. John Biggs has some photographs of the mounds, for those eager to see what they look like. Lovecraft’s own account of the inspiration as “tame & flat” is apparent in the story when he writes:

I had gone into Oklahoma to track down and correlate one of the many ghost tales which were current among the white settlers, but which had strong Indian corroboration, and—I felt sure—an ultimate Indian source. They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Lovecraft supplemented Zealia’s legend with his own research—the description of John Willis, U.S. Marshal and his phantom riders, was taken from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) or another contemporary source.

As a ghost-writer, working in the same Oklahoma setting as “The Curse of Yig,” Lovecraft was at pains to be consistent with the previous tale—Yig reappears (he had previously been mentioned as “Niguratl-Yig!” in “The Electric Executioner,” written in-between “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”), as does Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle, who gets a much-expanded role as a source of local lore and legend. The first two Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories thus form a kind of mini-mythos of their own—although Lovecraft would take the opportunity afforded by this revision to write something much more expansive and weird than Zealia Bishop probably intended.

Therein lies a problem.

In her memoir of Lovecraft, Zealia asserted:

At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance. Yet the short novel has the same Lovecraftian mood and flavor as the other horror stories, because Belknap himself had long ben a protégé of Lovecraft, and had himself absorbed much of the Lovecraft manner in tales of the macabre.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 260

In terms of polite fictions and little white lies, this is a load of horseshit. Zealia’s memoir was published in 1953, in a book published under her own name, while it’s possible that in the intervening 25 years she had convinced herself this was the truth, it is clear from Lovecraft’s letters that he wrote the whole story. What may have begun or been intended as a folksy ghost story of the west—something like Robert E. Howard’s later tale “The Horror from the Mound”—became a substantial Lovecraftian epic, a major work in Lovecraft’s developing artificial mythology. Which makes it rather difficult to say much about Zealia’s own influence on this tale, since it appears to be almost pure Lovecraft from start to finish.

So what is there to talk about in terms of her own contribution to the story?

For starters, the description of Binger and its inhabitants certainly seems to owe a great deal Lovecraft’s client rather than his own research. When we read:

Binger is a modest cluster of frame houses and stores in the midst of a flat windy region full of clouds of red dust. There are about 500 inhabitants besides the Indians on a neighbouring reservation; the principal occupation seeming to be agriculture. The soil is decently fertile, and the oil boom has not reached this part of the state. My train drew in at twilight, and I felt rather lost and uneasy—cut off from wholesome and every-day things—as it puffed away to the southward without me. The station platform was filled with curious loafers, all of whom seemed eager to direct me when I asked for the man to whom I had letters of introduction. I was ushered along a commonplace main street whose rutted surface was red with the sandstone soil of the country, and finally delivered at the door of my prospective host. Those who had arranged things for me had done well; for Mr. Compton was a man of high intelligence and local responsibility, while his mother—who lived with him and was familiarly known as “Grandma Compton”—was one of the first pioneer generation, and a veritable mine of anecdote and folklore.
     That evening the Comptons summed up for me all the legends current among the villagers, proving that the phenomenon I had come to study was indeed a baffling and important one. The ghosts, it seems, were accepted almost as a matter of course by everyone in Binger. Two generations had been born and grown up within sight of that queer, lone tumulus and its restless figures. The neighbourhood of the mound was naturally feared and shunned, so that the village and the farms had not spread toward it in all four decades of settlement; yet venturesome individuals had several times visited it. Some had come back to report that they saw no ghosts at all when they neared the dreaded hill; that somehow the lone sentinel had stepped out of sight before they reached the spot, leaving them free to climb the steep slope and explore the flat summit. There was nothing up there, they said—merely a rough expanse of underbrush.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

It seems likely that the bulk of this description likely came from Zealia, though Lovecraft put it into his own words and worked it into the story in his own fashion.

“The Mound” touches on a number of points of interest—too many to go into any great level of detail on them all. For example, the people of K’n-Yan are a permutation of the idea of the “Mound-Builders,” a race that preceded the Native Americans on the North American continent and was displaced and eradicated by them. While this idea has no archaeological merit, Henry Shetrone’s The Mound-Builders (1930) firmly established that Native Americans had built mounds such as Cahokia and Fort Ancient, it provided plentiful room for fantasy—Manly Wade Wellman’s Shonokins, which appeared some decades later in Weird Tales as adversaries of occult detective John Thunstone are another example—and yet, the idea of the “Mound-Builders” was essentially a racialist one, used to downplay the achievements and capacities of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by arguing that they did not have the capacity to build such structures or complicated polities. This is similar today to how arguments of “ancient Aliens” being responsible for the building of pyramids denigrate the legacy of the actual human builders of pyramids.

Lovecraft and Bishop almost certainly weren’t thinking things through quite so thoroughly. The treatment of Grey Eagle in this regard may be taken as singular: he is the most prominent Native American character in the entire corpus of Lovecraft’s work. That he is also a dime-novel stereotype is perhaps unfortunate, but the depiction may well have arisen more out of ignorance than malice: Lovecraft had never yet met a Native American. As much as contemporary readers may wince when reading his dialogue…

You let um ’lone, white man. No good—those people. All under here, all under there, them old ones. Yig, big father of snakes, he there. Yig is Yig. Tiráwa, big father of men, he there. Tiráwa is Tiráwa. No die. No get old. Just same like air. Just live and wait. One time they come out here, live and fight. Build um dirt tepee. Bring up gold—they got plenty. Go off and make new lodges. Me them. You them. Then big waters come. All change. Nobody come out, let nobody in. Get in, no get out. You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this. (ibid.)

…it’s important to remember that Lovecraft was working within an established tradition of depiction Native Americans that lasted from at least the late 19th century through to the westerns of the 1960s and 70s. That Lovecraft did not transcend the limitations of the stereotype regarding Native Americans is unfortunate, but not terribly surprising.

The culture of K’n-Yan itself is the most developed alien civilization that Lovecraft would depict until At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931. Critics have seen influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and the arguments for both are not difficult to make. The K’n-Yan are portrayed as near-human, but wise, powerful, and decadent. Their “affection-groups”—essentially polyamorous relationships—recall the free love group of which Lovecraft’s friend James Ferdinand Morton was a member. They are insular yet imperialistic; given to necromancies and slavery, cruel and worshipping strange alien gods—the parallels to Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné are uncanny but probably coincidental; both writers were drawing off of similar ideas of an exceedingly ancient, powerful, and decadent culture approaching the end of its natural lifespan (in Splengerian terms). Rome, as depicted by Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, might be another good data point for comparison.

Fantasy racism, which Lovecraft had toyed with in stories since “Polaris,” reaches a kind of peak here. The K’n-yans had fought, conquered, and subjugated the intelligent race in the red-litten caverns of Yoth, who had been bred over generations into beasts of burden…and a food source, recalling the revelations of “The Rats in the Walls”:

The beasts or gyaa-yothn, they explained, surely were curious things; but were really very harmless. The flesh they ate was not that of intelligent people of the master-race, but merely that of a special slave-class which had for the most part ceased to be thoroughly human, and which indeed was the principal meat stock of K’n-yan. They—or their principal ancestral element—had first been found in a wild state amidst the Cyclopean ruins of the deserted red-litten world of Yoth which lay below the blue-litten world of K’n-yan. That part of them was human, seemed quite clear; but men of science could never decide whether they were actually the descendants of the bygone entities who had lived and reigned in the strange ruins. The chief ground for such a supposition was the well-known fact that the vanished inhabitants of Yoth had been quadrupedal. This much was known from the very few manuscripts and carvings found in the vaults of Zin, beneath the largest ruined city of Yoth. But it was also known from these manuscripts that the beings of Yoth had possessed the art of synthetically creating life, and had made and destroyed several efficiently designed races of industrial and transportational animals in the course of their history—to say nothing of concocting all manner of fantastic living shapes for the sake of amusement and new sensations during the long period of decadence. The beings of Yoth had undoubtedly been reptilian in affiliations, and most physiologists of Tsath agreed that the present beasts had been very much inclined toward reptilianism before they had been crossed with the mammal slave-class of K’n-yan. (ibid.)

The use of “master-race” in this context is likely derived more from American slavery rhetoric than scientific racialism—and the Nazis had not yet risen to power. Burroughs led the way in scientific romance in applying Colonialist fiction tropes of race and racial relationships to aliens and fantasy races; African and Asian peoples became various-colored Martians. Lovecraft makes a point to that effect:

The average interplanetary tale is just a camouflaged “Western” with the pioneers & soldiers called “space-explorers”, & the Indians called “Martians” or “lunarians” or something like that.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilson Shepherd, 29 May 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 250

Of all the characters in the novel, one of the most tragic is T’la-yub:

In the year 1545, as he reckoned it, Zamacona began what may well be accepted as his final series of attempts to leave K’n-yan. His fresh opportunity came from an unexpected source—a female of his affection-group who conceived for him a curious individual infatuation based on some hereditary memory of the days of monogamous wedlock in Tsath. Over this female—a noblewoman of moderate beauty and of at least average intelligence named T’la-yub—Zamacona acquired the most extraordinary influence; finally inducing her to help him in an escape, under the promise that he would let her accompany him.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Her introduction, in some form or another, was apparently necessary for Lovecraft to subscribe to at least the general appearance of keeping with Zealia’s initial idea: “Sometimes it is a woman.” The tragedy of her appearance is underscored almost immediately by Zamacona’s immediate desire for infidelity: whatever affection she held for him, he does not love her in return:

T’la-yub he would perhaps allow to share his fortunes, for she was by no means unattractive; though possibly he would arrange for her sojourn amongst the plains Indians, since he was not overanxious to preserve links with the manner of life in Tsath. For a wife, of course, he would choose a lady of Spain—or at worst, an Indian princess of normal outer-world descent and a regular and approved past. But for the present T’la-yub must be used as a guide. (ibid.)

The “Indian princess” is another stub of stereotype wedged into the mix…but Lovecraft had little concern for romantic relationships. His major interest in the story was for primal weirdness, and he achieves that in large part by working in references to his friend Clark Ashton Smith’s creation Tsathoggua:

[…] the “revision” job I’m doing now is the composition of an original tale from a single paragraph of locale & subject orders—not even a plot germ. The only reason I do this kind of thing is that the pay is absolutely certain, whereas on signed original work one has to take one’s chances of acceptance or rejection. […] My present job is a Reed yarn to be entitled “The Mound”—with the Oklahoma locale of “Yig,” but with ramifications extending to blasphemously elder worlds, & a race of beings that came down from the stars with great Cthulhu. I also bring in a Spaniard who deserted from Coronado’s party in 1541. This job—& the two De Castro jobs preceding it—will tend to limber up my fictional pen for the spontaneous effusions to follow!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 187-188

As for me—Tsathoggua made such an impression on my fancy that I am using him in the “revision” (i.e.—”ghost-writing”) job I am now doing—telling of some things connected with his worship before he appeared on the earth’s surface. As you know my tale concerns a nether world of unbelievable antiquity below the mound-&-pueblo region of the American southwest, & the visit thereto in 1541-45 by one of Coronado’s men—Panfilio de Zamacona y Nuñez. It is a place litten by a blue radiance due to magnetic force & radio-activity, & is peopled by the primal proto-humans brought down from the stars by Great Cthulhu—a forgotten, decadent race who cut themselves off from the upper world when Atlantis & Lemuria sank. But there was a race of beings in the earth infinitely older than they—the saurian quadrupeds of the red-litten caverns of Yoth which yawn underneath the blue-litten caverns of K’n-yan. When the first men came to K’n-Yan they found the archaeological reliques of Yoth, & speculated curiously upon them. At the point where I introduce our friend Tsathoggua, the Spanish explorer has entered K’n-yan, has encountered a party of friendly natives led by one Gll’-Hthaa-Ynn, & is being escorted to the great city of Tsath—mounted on a monstrous horned & half-human quadruped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 192

Shall be interested to know what you think of “The Mound” when you get around to it. You will learn therein—back to a certain point—where Klarkash-Ton’s nighted Tsathoggua cam from.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, Jan 1930, Lovecraft Annual #8 (21)

Tsathoggua introduced in Smith’s story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which was submitted to Weird Tales and rejected, but the manuscript was shared by Lovecraft who was so taken with the entity that he included references to him in “The Mound.” Smith would later go on to include references to Tsathoggua in several tales, though he was first mentioned in print in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931).

The manuscript of “The Mound” was completed by Lovecraft in December 1929, and sent to his friend and revision collaborator Frank Belknap Long, to be sent off to Zealia for approval. Unfortunately, there was a snag.

I have just learned to my surprise & dismay that Little Belknap has, through a misunderstanding, not yet forwarded to you the completed MS. of “The Mound” which I sent him late in December to read & pass onward.  […] He thought you might wish to see it first in rough draught, so that you can order any needed changes concerning Binger local colour &c. […] If Wright takes the tale—as he is very likely to do—you will make a very handsome profit. Sonny seems to think it is very good—I can’t resist enclosing his note regarding it—& is inclined to spoof Grandpa for doing it for $20.00; but I never raise a figure I have quoted in advance. That is why I can’t make revision pay!

I hope you will like the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 14 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 168

At around 29,000 words, “The Mound” would have netted $145 dollars if sold at half-a-cent per word—Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—so Lovecraft had every right to be optimistic, not least because Zealia still owed him money from previous revision work. The manuscript was still untyped, and Lovecraft suggested it be typed up by his friend and sometime collaborator C. M. Eddy, Jr., who was in a bad way financially. Zealia agreed.

[C. M. Eddy, Jr.] was prodigiously grateful for the “Mound” MS., & promises a good typed copy & carbon in something like a week’s time. I furnished him with all the needed supplies, gave him warning about all the difficult & artificial words in the MS., & in general did what I could to make the job less formidable for him. I think he will have no difficulty, & believe the resulting text will be very neat & accurate. I am telling him not to bother about the diacritical marks on the Spanish & artificial words, since I can easily supply these with pen & ink when I go over the MS. in the end. Wright will have a very legible & prepossessing MS. to survey when the time comes for him to pass judgment upon it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 29 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 173

The story was duly submitted to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales…who promptly bounced it.

The damned fool has just turned down the story I ‘ghost-wrote’ for my Kansas City client, on the ground that it was too long for single publication, yet structurally unadapted to division. I’m not worrying, because I’ve got my cash; but it does sicken me to watch the caprices of that editorial jackass!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 251

Confound that unutterable Chicago dunce! The fool could have divided the story as well as not—but he was evidently in the same dense mood which afflicted him when he rejected Smith’s “Satampra Zeiros.”

If I were you I would try the tale on the following magazine in the following order:
Astounding Stories
Amazing Stories
Science Wonder Stories

[…] If these three markets prove closed, you might ask Wright whether he would consider a condensation of the story. With plenty of time, I might manage to pare the thing down here & there—although it would be a monstrous task. You could ask Wright his maximum word-limit of acceptance. Not long ago he accepted a tale of Smith’s on condition of its abridgment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, Feb 1930, The Spirit of Revision 176

Lovecraft was essentially listing all the pulps in early 1930 that might accept weird or science fiction stories, including Science Wonder Stories, which was owned by Hugo Gernsback and Lovecraft knew from painful experience was difficult to collect money from. His exasperation must have been high to have even suggested abridging the story—a practice he was normally loathe to do—and eventually Frank Belknap Long abridged it by removing some pages of the original typescript (O Fortunate Floridian 145n2).

Even abridged, the story remained unsold.

On 22 July 1930, Zealia Brown Reed married D. W. Bishop, and was known thereafter as Zealia B. Bishop. In 1934, Lovecraft was visiting R. H. Barlow in DeLand, Florida. A collector of pulp manuscripts, the issue of “The Mound” arose, and he inquired about purchasing or making a copy of it, as he was working to systemize the Mythosian lore within it:

You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mound to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just now to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once—If he decides to buy it—is it for publication or just to keep the Mss.? You did not make that part clear and I should like to know. Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil? I have it and a carbon copy of The Mound except the first three pages—Have you time to recall them were you to see it?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

As I am pointing out to Ar-e’ch-Bei, Pnom’s account of Ts. can be reconciled with the legendry told to Zamarcona (sic) in The Mound. The myth, through aeons, was varied in the usual mythopoeic fashion by the cavern-dwellers, who came at last to believe that merely the images of Tsathoggua, and not the god himself, had emerged in former cycles from the inner gulf. Ts., travelling fourthdimensionally from Saturn, first entered the Earth through the lightless abyss of N’kai; and, not unnaturally, the Yothians regarded N’kai as his place of origin.
—Clark Ashton Smith, c. 16 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 560

Ar-E’ch-Bei, with his mania for systematisation, will be infinitely grateful to you for your transcripts from the parchments of Pnom. I am mostly interested to know that Pnom’s account can be reconciled with the rambling lore gathered in subterrene K’nyan by Panfilo de Zamacona, & am especially impressed by the knowledge of Tsathoggua’s present whereabouts. Suppose an expedition were to be sent to unearth It? What would ensue?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 563

I see that CAS is linking up his own Tsathogguan data with the legends in “The Mound”, to that a minimum of discrepancies will exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 142

As to this matter of the Bishop MSS.—of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. B—in view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revision—to let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her main literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned. Now as to the correct procedure—of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “the Mound”. […] Now as to “The Mound”—probably there’ll be only three pages missing from the complete version; so that if you’ll type duplicates of these, you’ll have both copies in good shape. You can then let Mrs. B. do what she likes with the abridged version, or offer to try to place it for her if she’ll tell you the place to send it. I hardly think she’ll insist on retaining a copy of the original if you’ll assure her of its safety, & guarantee to let her see it or copy it if she ever wishes o do so. This is especially true if you let her have the abridged copy. After all, typing three double-spaced pages isn’t so bad a job—especially when it solves a problem so neatly. I’m writing Mrs. B. now, & urging that she does not insist on keeping a copy of the unabridged version. Enclosed—incidentally—is her epistle, for which I have no further use.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143-144

Zealia’s letter to Barlow of 11 July 1934, shows she intended to have Long shop around the fresh typescript to the pulps once again, but it remained unsold. Nevertheless, the personal and professional relationship remained.

Glad the unabridged “Mound” wasn’t an extreme disappointment. Mrs. B. has begun to pay up her debt in weekly dollar instalments—because she wants more revision done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 157

As late as 1936, Lovecraft claimed that Zealia Bishop owed Long $43, himself $26, and Maurice W. Moe (a friend and associate) $11 (O Fortunate Floridian! 370). The sum to Lovecraft was outstanding at the time of his death in 1937. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was fired from his position and died in 1940. He was replaced as editor by Dorothy McIlwraith…and in the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, an abridged version of “The Mound” finally appeared, as by Z. B. Bishop.

This abridgment was made by August Derleth, based on existing annotated typescripts from Long & Barlow. Derleth appears to have actively been working with McIlwraith to get previously unpublished Lovecraftiana into Weird Tales, and eventually into Arkham House volumes. “The Curse of Yig” had been reprinted by Wright in the April 1939 Weird Tales (under the byline Z. B. Bishop), so regular readers of the magazine would have been familiar when the quasi-sequel appeared. “The Eyrie,” the letters-column of Weird Tales, was much-shrunken from Wright’s days, but “The Mound” was still praised by a couple of fans as one of the better stories in the issue.

The “unabridged” version of “The Mound” (based on Long’s altered typescript0 was published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House)—where it was finally acknowledged as one of Lovecraft’s collaborations, although the principal authorship was still credited to Bishop. Smith, on reading it, wrote to Derleth:

Such revisions as “Out of the Aeons,” “The Mound,” and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” are genuine Lovecraftian masterpieces.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 342

In 1953, Arkham House released The Curse of Yig, containing all three of the Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories, as well as her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View.” She would recall there about their relationship:

But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H. P. L: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken. And in me, Lovecraft had a pupil who could have been encouraged to write for the contemporary love story magazines instead of led away from them, for, after his untimely death, I found the editors of confession and love pulp magazines to be ruthless yet most helpful critics, and managed to sell stories to them at far better prices than I was paid for those weird tales I had written under Lovecraft’s tutelage.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 263

There is some truth to what Zealia wrote; Lovecraft’s interests did not lie in the confession pulps, and she probably would have had more luck with an agent that had experience in that line. The three Bishop/Lovecraft tales were not successful enterprises. While “The Curse of Yig” did finally sell, and was even anthologized, “Medusa’s Coil” only sold in 1939 and “The Mound” remained unsold until 1940. Her other stories that Lovecraft had a hand in revising or correcting which are mentioned in her letters, such as “The Unchaining,” appear to have not sold and are now apparently lost.

In 1989, a corrected text for “The Mound” was made by S. T. Joshi, based on the original typescripts, and published unabridged in The Horror in the Museum & Other Revisions (1989). It may be read online for free.


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

With thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for his help on this one.

“The Curse of Yig” (1929) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.

In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress if Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England HIstoric Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s press CLub, Mrs. BIshop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.

In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)

In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”

Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:

There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.

Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.

Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 257-258

Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:

I just fixed a weird story for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude 1.137

Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 181

By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222

For decades, much of the Lovecraft-Bishop correspondence were not available, but in 2015 the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society published The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, which includes many never-before-seen letters. In particular, we find that Zealia sent Lovecraft a synopsis around February 1928:

Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!

In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]

Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108

The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:

Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)

From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.

While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:

Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]

As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112

Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:

Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)

Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”

One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:

Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)

Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.

Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.

While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.

Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:

I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale 258

“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:

By the same token, don’t for your life mention that I wrote “Yig”, “Electric Executioner”, “Horror in Museum”, &c.! One must never give away a client.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome 87

The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:

In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.

Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:

By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.132

I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom 1.148

Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.

Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.


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

“His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood” (1990) by Poppy Z. Brite

I cannot reveal the details of our shocking expeditions, or catalogue even partly the worst of the trophies adorning the nameless museum we prepared in the great stone house where we jointly dwelt, alone and servantless. Our museum was a blasphemous, unthinkable place, where with the satanic taste of neurotic virtuosi we had assembled an universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”

These rooms were where our museum would be set up. At last I came to agree with Lois that only the plundering of graves might cure us of the most stifling ennui we had yet suffered.
—Poppy Z. Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood”

Lovecraft’s mythos is a true mythology. The stories have become generational, told and retold, embellished and expanded upon, adapted to the syntax of the era. “The Hound” is as decadent a story as Lovecraft ever wrote, and its spawn include “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan and “Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire, both of which reiterate the old tale with variations, examining new aspects of the strange relationship that binds the two morbid companions in their darkling quest.

So does Poppy Z. Brite (AKA Billy Martin) in “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood,” except here the tale is rewoven from the bones up. More explicit, more elaborate; not a sequel or prequel or continuation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound” but a reimagining. Putting onto the page all the things that Lovecraft himself never would: blood, sex, necrophilia, bestiality, a touch of actual New Orleans voodoo-lore.

Which, in the hand of someone with less skill, taste, or imagination, could easily have slipped over into edgelord territory. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon is an example where efforts to put on the page what Lovecraft left off are sometimes claimed to have crossed the invisible and wavering line of good taste; to have pushed past “explicit” into “exploitation.” Brite plays a careful balancing act here, more extreme than Lovecraft was, less explicit than Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” series would be.

It isn’t pornography, to put it bluntly. It’s art.

Nor is it an effort to do Lovecraft one better, though readers can judge for themselves which version of the story they prefer. The setting has changed, from Lovecraft’s London to Brite’s New Orleans; from the 1900s to the 1980s. St. John and his nameless narrator companion have been replaced by Louis and Howard, though their roles really haven’t changed that much. Louis/St. John is still the more active and daring of the pair, possessed of the dark vitality and hunger for sensation that drives the plot of the story; Howard is more passive, yin to his yang, submissive (sometimes literally) but also enabling. Like other post-Lovecraft takes on the characters, the homosocial bond between the two becomes explicit (and homosexual or bisexual) in this later incarnation.

If published decade or two earlier, that might have been a problem. Stories with LGBTQ characters that come to a bad end can sometimes be interpreted as moral fables. No such message here need be understood or implied: Louis and Howard aren’t punished because they end up lovers. Being a same-sex couple isn’t the key point here of failure here: it’s being a pair of graverobbers and digging up the wrong sorcerer’s grave.

It’s not a healthy relationship, nor was it ever meant to be. Two people egging each other on to greater and greater depths, pushing until they cross a threshold and invite supernatural retribution. This is the aspect of fable to “The Hound” that is missing from many other stories by Lovecraft, and Brite’s story captures that very well.

“His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood” is one of Poppy Z. Brite’s most-anthologized stories; good places to read it include Cthulhu 2000 (1999) and Brite’s anthology Wormwood: A Collection of Stories (1995).


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

“The Leapers” (1942) by Carol Grey

“Carol Grey” was a pseudonym used by writer and editor Robert A. W. Lowndes for two stories, both initially published in the same pulp magazine: “Passage to Sharanee” (FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, April 1942) and “The Leapers” (FUTURE Fantasy and Science Fiction, December 1942). Why Lowndes chose this pseudonym is not, to the best of my knowledge, ever explained. While Sally Theobald and Justine Geoffrey were obvious literary references and made sense within the context of their respective stories, and Linda Lovecraft a persona adopted to fit an anthology, “Carol Grey” appears to have been a purely pragmatic pen-name: Lowndes also edited FUTURE, and did not want to appear cheap or biased in publishing his own fiction under his own name.

In any event, Lowndes got a taste of what it might be like as a female pulp writer from at least one ardent science fiction fan, Earl Andrews, whose letter was published in FUTURE combined with Science Fiction, August 1942) in response to “Passage to Sharanee”:

Ah, Carol Grey! Ah, spring! Ah! Prithee, my Lord Editor: wiltow kindly vouchsafe unto a fellow Lothario certain divers information. Tell me now of yon Carol. Doth she walk in beauty and so on? ((My dear fellow. !!! Ed.))

Lowndes’ reply is perhaps understandable given the circumstances:

This is going to hurt you more than it hurts us, Earl, my lad, but we’re under strict orders not to reveal Miss Grey’s address, or divulge any divers information about her. And we cannot see any reason for not adhering faithfully to those instructions.

Elsewhere in the same magazine, Lowndes had to assure a reader that Carol Grey was “not Helen Weinbaum or Leigh Brackett,” two actual female sci-fi pulp writers of the 40s.

There is no direct connection between the two “Carol Grey” stories; “Passage to Sharanee” is a space opera novelette concerning a missing jewel and an ancient shapeshifting alien called a vombis (no apparent connection to Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis”). “The Leapers” by contrast is a tale of the Cthulhu Mythos, albeit very much of the science-fantasy varietal. It is tied by references to several other pieces of Lovecraftian fiction written and published by Lowndes, beginning with “The Abyss” (Stirring Science Stories, February 1941) in what might be loosely called “The Arkya Cycle” or “The Song of Yste” series, after the most characteristic elements of Lowndes’ additions to the Mythos.

In the early 1940s while editing FUTURE, Lowndes was a member of a New York-based group of science fiction fans and writers called the Futurians; many of their works were tapped by Lowndes for this and other pulps he edited. Another Futurian, Damon Knight, later wrote a book on their activities, which includes the genesis of Lowndes’ “The Leaper”:

Lowndes told me, “There was a Cabal⁠—Donald [Wollheim], Cyril [Kornbluth], John [B. Michel], Chet Cohen and myself. We met once a week. The Cabal was a literary wrokshop, really. We met at Cyril’s place once a week, and each one of us was supposed to bring a manuscript to read. […] And as it turned out,” Lowndes said, “a fair number of manuscrupts that were read at the Cabal were later sold and published. […] It was at a Cabal meeting that my story, ‘The Leapers,’ was read, and the only compliment I remmber ever getting from Cyril Kornbluth—he read it, he sort of blinked and shook his head, and said, ‘It’s absorbing.'”
—Damon Knight, The Futurians

Lowndes himself would expand on this a little in his introduction to the story when it was reprinted in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (Candlemas 1989):

One day when Don was visiting John [B. Michel] and me at the Futurian Embassay (103rd Street, Manhatten) he sayeth unto me: “Doc, do you think you could write a Lovecraft story? I’d like one for my next issue.”

I thought I could and behold I did, getting leave of absence from The Cabal not to write anything else until I had finished “The Leapers.” I shall never forget the night when the ms was passed around and read at a Cabal meeting. Cyril was the last to get it; whne he finished he blinked, shoko his head slightly as if to wake himself up, and said in an awed tone: “It’s absorbing.” That was the one and only time that cyril Kornbluth had any kind words for any of my fiction. And since it had been written for Don Wollheim in the first place, there was no quesiton of immediate acceptance.

Alas! It would have led off the fantasy section of the ssue following the March 1942 Stirring Science Stories; but that issue never appeared.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Lowndes and Wollheim would both use Futurian stories in their respective magazines, and there are little in-jokes almost from the start. For example, when Lowndes writes in “The Leapers”:

One of the missing, for example, was an attractive blonde of 23, widely renowned among the devotees of the more imaginative and speculative of pulp ficiton as an illusrator; another, a man of 27, was in the process of becoming a favorite in the field of fantastic, cosmic horror-fiction, the general type of narrative wherein Poe, Machen, and Lovecraft specialized.

Illustrator Barbara Hall, who Knight describes as “a good-looking blond woman” associated with Wollheim is obviously the former; Wollheim (born in 1914, so 27 in ’41 when the story was probably written) is almost certainly the latter.

In format, “The Leapers” owes much to an older style of horror fiction, large chunks of the text being supposed clippings from newspapers regarding Fortean phenomenon, assembled by the nameless narrator as they seek to piece together the puzzle of a very odd missing persons case. This leads them shortly to the Song of Yste, Lowndes’ own addition to the Lovecraftian library, and which first appeared in “The Abyss.” In a later reprinting of the story, Lowndes would note:

While written as a “Lovecraft story”, even the earlier version contained one fundamental departure from HPL—a matter about which your editor and The Master had argued back in 1936, shortly before he died: that reading “Forbidden Books”, etc. had to bring about dreadfl and horrible events, and that such knowledge leads invariably to destruction. While we would not quarrel, even now, with Lovecraft’s statements that reading the Necronomicon would be the beginning of a Frightful End for you, we do assure you that, for a strong mind, the Song Of Yste need not be fatal—unless you’re bored to death.
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Magazine of Horror #23 (Vol. 4, No. 5), Sep 1968

Lovecraft and Lowndes had corresponded during the last year or so of Lovecraft’s life, while Lovecraft’s ideas appear to be based strongly on The King in Yellow play as used by Robert W. Chambers, “The Leapers” appears to be Lowndes counter-reaction to that, with lengthy passages of exposition about the reading of forbidden books and why they are forbidden. This was still that first generation of fandom where random literary arguments could be worked out in print on pulpwood paper, and Lowndes even alludes to this correspondence directly in the story:

I had, in fact, read a few of the tales of classic horror, written some more or less precocious speculations regarding them, and written a letter or so to a muchly-famed student residing in Providence, Rhode Island. he it was who had been the source of what little knowledge I possessed, and I had permitted my correspondence with him to lag; now, I could not be sure if he were still available at the old address.

The posthumous unnamed Lovecraft then makes an appearance via letter, with Lowndes doing a fair imitation of his style. Futurians such as Donald Wollheim, who had also corresponded with Lovecraft, would have recognized this immediately; whether the pulp readers of FUTURE picked up on it is less certain.

In the 1960s, Lowndes became editor of The Magazine of Horror, a small digest that focused mainly on classic and pulp reprints put out by Health Knowledge, Inc. The magazine gave him the opportunity to expand and republish some of his earlier works, including “The Abyss” (Winter 1965/66) and “The Leapers” (September 1968), this time under his own name. He later recalled:

It was while working at Health Knowledge that I had occasion to reread “The Leapers,” and found myself unsatisfied. So I rewrote and expanded it, making it a frame story.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Part of this general expansion includes a sort of preface, identifying the narrator as Arnold Grayson, and that it had originally been sent to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales (who had died in 1940, two years before the story was initially published, a fact which Lowndes notes).

The other major addition is an expansion from the pseudo-Lovecraft letter, which goes to some odd places:

Well, I have a letter from Hannes [Bok] dated 1939, in which he tells me that Ray Bradbury is going to show some samples of his work to Farnsworth Wright at WEIRD TALES. I replied that I did hope that Wright would be impressed, for as delectable as Mrs. Brundage’s covers were to the more erotic-minded readers, few of them were truly weird. (I assure you that I have never objected to well-exposed depictions of delightful-looking young girls—but maintain stubbornly that a girl cannot be both delightful-looking and weird at the same time.)

Lovecraft died in ’37, Bok’s first art for Weird Tales was ’39, Wright died in ’40, the events of the story nominally take place in ’42…the timeline is a little screwy, but Lowndes mentions that in the preface. The comment on Brundage’s art is interesting because it recalls a similar comment made by Lovecraft in an actual letter:

I have no objection to the nude in art—in fact, the human figure is as worthy a type of subject matter as any other object of beauty in the visible world. But I don’t see what the hell Mrs. Brundage’s undressed ladies have to do with weird fiction!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Willis Conover, 16 Sep 1936, Selected Letters 5.304

Which raises an interesting problem: volume 5 of the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft was published in 1976, the revised edition of “The Leapers” was published in The Magazine of Horror in 1968. So did Lowndes have access to this quote from Conover’s letters or…and this is a tantalizing possibility…did Lowndes cannibalize or paraphrase part of a letter that Lovecraft had sent to him? Until and unless Lovecraft’s letters to Lowndes are ever published, we may never know.

In any event, this second incarnation of “The Leapers” had one final evolution:

Few of the readers of the issue of Magazine of Horror had read the original version, and the revision went over quite well—except with one person who had read and remembered the original: Robert Silverberg. Silverberg wrote me a polite note, more in sorrow than in anger, and pointed out that my frame approach went far to spoil an excellent story. Thus I have revised the story for a third time and the final version, which follows, has (I hope) the best of both earlier versions.
Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (3)

Titled simply “Leapers” in Crypt of Cthulhu, the third-and-final revision starts by dropping the initial part of the “frame” mentioning Farnsworth Wright and Weird Tales. The added portion of the pseudo-Lovecraft letter remains, and at the end is tacked on an addendum containing the gist of the 1968 framing device, Wright and all. Whether this is actually better is a bit subjective—it gets at the story more directly, but the mention of Wright still feels problematic from a timeline point of view.

It’s difficult to judge the impact of Carol Grey and “The Leapers.” Even among devoted Mythos-fans, the Song of Yste is not exactly as popular as the Necronomicon, Unaussprechlichen Kulten, or the Book of Eibon. Robert Weinberg and Ed Berglund in the Reader’s Guide to the Cthulhu Mythos (1973) have marked the story as “integral to the Cthulhu Mythos”—a distinction they don’t give to items such as “The Cats of Ulthar” or “The Colour Out of Space.” Certainly, the theme of forbidden knowledge begun in “The Leapers” was something that stuck with Lowndes, as he wrote later about his correspondence with Lovecraft:

So I finally wrote him that winter, and in the course of my first letter told him what had bothered me about At the Mountains of Madness, and some of the other stories: the discovery of the unknown always led to madness and destruction. couldn’t some unknown things possibly be beautiful, leading to greater happiness, etc.?

His reply was that such stories must have such an ending, because the universe was really a terrible place and only our relative ignorance and limitations made it endurable to us; to seek to go beyond those limitations, to find the real nature of things, would inevitably be shattering. it is only our illusions of order and relative safety that protect us from madness. (That is, of course, a paraphrase of what he wrote me.) The seence of horror lay in abnormalities, in violations of what we consider to be natural law, dislocations of time and space, etc. […]

And when I got around to trying my hand at the Lovecraft type of story, I stuck by my guns. Awful things happened to some of the charaters, of course, but everyone who had read the forbidden books was not destroyed nor turned into a monster. And while I still love HPL, I cannot but look at him as something of a vandal, at times—all those precious and priceless copies of the Necronomicon burned!
—Robert A. W. Lowndes, “On Forbidden Knowledge” in Crypt of Cthulhu #62 (56)

If there is anything to be said for the story, it is that it is almost a perfect encapsulation of Mythos fiction in the 1940s, with its odd pulpy plot and in-jokes, the convoluted history of reprints and revision. That first generation of post-Lovecraft fans, still coming to terms with Lovecraft and his philosophy.


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

 

“This Human Form” (2014) by Lyndsey Holder

(A BUZZING IMITATION OF HUMAN SPEECH)

Iä! Shub-Niggurath! The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young!
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Whisperer in Darkness”

You call me black, but I am beyond black. I am the space between the stars, the darkness that lies on the edge of your dreams, the sound of death in small spaces.

You say I am from the woods, but my woods contain no trees or birds, no peaceful sounds of wind and stream, no quiet rustle of delicate creatures. My forest pulsates, vibrates, glistens. […]

You call me a goat, and sometimes I am.
⁠—Lyndsey Holder, “This Human Form” in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath

More of a prose-poem or an invocation than a short story, Lyndsey Holder’s “This Human Form” reminds me of “The Elder Sister-like One, Vol. 1” (2016) by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。)“Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin, and “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel. Works that take inspiration from the Mythos, but don’t lean heavily on them; they forge their own lore, not bound by any convention of the Mythos and yet still strongly connected to it thematically.

Holder’s first-person account is only implicitly that of the Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young, reveling more in sensation and imagery than any concrete connections to any other story in the Mythos. The connection is stronger by association: the story is in a Mythos anthology, which makes the imagery more apparent. But stick this story in a dark fantasy or horror magazine and would people still get it? Would their minds still make the connection? Probably not, if they weren’t already initiated in Mythos-lore and familiar with Shub-Niggurath, her aspects and attributes. But they could still enjoy the story.

“This Human Form” is exemplary of how in a largely disorganized way, the Mythos has evolved organically into something which the SCP wiki has done by considered design. While it has been said there is no canon to the Mythos, it would be more accurate to say there is no one canon. Certainly, Lovecraft’s Dreamlands stories are fairly consistent in themselves, as are Ramsey Campbell’s Severn Valley tales, Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow stories, W. H. Pugmire’s Sesqua Valley, Charles Stross’ the Laundry Files, etc. Peter Rawlik has curated a canon centered around “Herbert West—Reanimator,” and Shane Ivey has spent considerable time doing much the same with the Delta Green setting.

Most of these works are independent, interconnected, sometimes conflicting. Myths do that. Conflict, arguably, might even be essential to the Mythos: it forces the reader to engage with it, to juggle different concepts, maybe try to reconcile them.

There is on thing you do not call me: mother. My body has sent a thousand children into this world, a thousand mewling, crawling things, suckling and whining, slithering down silvery dream-threads into the soft comfort of your warm beds.
—Lyndsey Holder, “This Human Form”

It is rare to get a first-person take from a Mythos entity, although far from unknown. Neil Gaiman famously did it with I, Cthulhu, or, What’s a Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing in a Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9′ S, Longitude 126° 43′ W)? (1987) (later publications have quite reasonably shortened this to “I, Cthulhu”). Gaiman’s take, of course, is a quiet taking of the piss. The idea of Cthulhu addressing the user is the main joke. For Mythos entities that are largely defined as ineffable and unknowable, the first-person narrative rather kills the mystery…unless, as Holder does, the meat of the text is salacious, sensation-driven, and suggestive. Making telling feel like showing.

Lyndsey Holder’s “This Human Form” was published in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014). Her other Mythos fiction includes “Parasitosis” (2015) and “Chosen” (2015).


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

“I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986) by Sally Theobald

He was a great reader, mostly of paperback westerns and dime romance novels. All this is well known, but what many readers probably do not ralize is that Howard wrote (under various pseudonyms) several stories and “confession” pieces for magazines of that type. Two of my own favorites were “Showdown at the OK Abyss” (written as “Hank Theobald”) and “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom” (under the by-line “Sally Theobald”). Sonia may have assisted him in some of these, but she would never admit it.
—”Lovecraft as I seem to Remember Him” (1983) by “F. Gumby Kalem” in Crypt of Cthulhu14

Those who chanced to read F. Gumby Kalem’s memoir “Lovecraft as I seem to Remember Him” (Crypt of Cthulhu 14) may recall Kalem’s surprising revelation that HPL, too, wrote for the confession magazines under the transparent pen-name Sally Theobald. Much checking with pulp colectors has turned up a copy of one of these tales, “I Wore the Brassier of Doom.” You will have to admit that Lovecraft could cover his tracks when he wanted to. But for Gumby Kalem’s information, it is a safe bet this work would never have been identified and restored to its rightful place among HPL’s oeuvre.
—”Scandal Sheet” (1986) by Robert M. Price in Lurid Confessions

“I Wore the Brassiere of Doom” is a playful hoax perpetrated by Robert M. Price, editor of both Crypt of Cthulhu and Lurid Confessions (among other ‘zines). The idea that a pulp writer might spread their wings and splash another field of fiction is not far-fetched—many did. Robert E. Howard wrote for example wrote weird fiction, westerns, detective, historical adventure, and spicy stories for the pulps; he tried to write science fiction and confession-style pulps too.

For spicy pulps in particular, Howard adopted the pseudonym “Sam Walser”—and Lovecraft was famous for his own pseudonyms, mostly in the amateur press, such as “Lewis Theobald, Jr.” which was his byline with Winifred Virginia Jackson (“Elizabeth Berkeley”) for “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” Price, who wrote both “Lovecraft as I seem to Remember Him” and “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom,” was thus careful in picking a realistic pseudonym for the Providence pulpster in “Sally Theobald.”

The hoax was so convincing, that some folks actually fell for it.

Once I wrote a fake Lovecraft tale, as if he had written it for the confession magazines, “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom,” as by Sally Theobald. Without meaning to, I tricked a French Lovecraft scholar into listing it in his Lovecraft bibliography!
“Robert M. Price Interview” (2010)

The story was translated as “Le Soutien-Gorge Ensorcelé” (“The Enchanted Bra”) and published in Pulps No. 2 La Nurserie de l’Épouvante (“The Nursery of Terror,” 1987), a collection of translated pulp reprints, as by Lovecraft.

The broader point that the backstory “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom” emphasizes is not about the gullibility of readers or editors who fell for the hoax; Price’s tongue-in-cheek trail of breadcrumbs is transparent to any Lovecraft scholar (HPL did not read westerns or dime romance novels, no dates or titles of magazines are given, etc.) before they read the first line of the story. What is the point is that there was never anything stopping Lovecraft (or any other writer) from using a pseudonym of a different gender—and this presents a particular challenge at times when seeking to focus on works by female writers in pulps or weird fiction. While it is not clear that there were any women who wrote Mythos fiction under male pseudonyms (or vice versa) before the 1980s, it would not be surprising to find a few such works lurking in odd fanzines and forgotten pulps. Certainly there are plenty of examples of such genderbending nameplay in other genres, probably most famously James Tiptree Jr. (Alice Bradley Sheldon).

The story itself is not a pastiche of Lovecraft’s style, but certainly a pastiche of the confessional, a pulp genre inaugurated by True Story Magazine (1919- ). The moralistic atmosphere of these confessionals generally has women expressing grief for how they erredusually by engaging in inappropriate relationships, having children out of wedlock, drinking or drugs, etc.—providing a taboo thrill to the reader at being able to re-live their adventures while at the same time unsubtly re-affirming the decidedly misogynistic attitudes of the first half of the 20th century.

The story of a young and well-endowed country girl goes to the big city for the first time, intent on making it as a modern business woman is meat for a thousand stories…except in this particular Macy’s, she finds something strange:

As I placed the bra back in its box I noticed something else: the odd seam design. Across each cup, radiating out from the center, was a five-pointed star with an oval or eye-shape in the center.  thought little of this, except to guess that the design might have something to do with the nice way the bra seemed to uphold and almost carress me.
Lurid Confessions 31

The implication, of course, is that this is the Elder Sign as used by August Derleth in his own Mythos fiction:

Elder-Sign-Dearleth

The new brassiere certainly attracts a good bit of attention, and if there’s a fault in Price’s story, this is where it comes in, trying to channel some of the inherent racism of “The Call of Cthulhu” combined with the inherent sexism of the confession pulps:

Oh, I admit, soem of my gentlemen callers were not exactly dreamboats, but in a city populated by herds of rat-faced mongrels and ruffians, one had to make do. And if a girl waits until Mr. Perfect comes along, she’s liable to wind up an old maid. (ibid.)

Price would touch on similar issues in “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price, and there is certainly something to be said for attempting to accurately capture the atmosphere of racism of the time and of the suggested author; whether Price goes too far or just far enough is a bit subjective, it is certainly not necessary to the story, but does help to tie it in a little closer to Lovecraft’s life and fiction.  While Lovecraft did not work racism into everything he wrote, the language Price uses here is directly influenced by Lovecraft’s.

Price, of course, is all about working in the little references to Lovecraft based on what little was published of the Providence pulpster’s own romantic life. When he wrote:

We would sit on the couch smootching and my sate would say something romantic like, “My dear, you have no idea how much I appreciate you.” Then his hand would begin to drift from my shoulders southward to hover above my breast. (ibid, 32)

The line was lifted wholesale from the memoir of Lovecraft’s former wife, Sonia Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985). Price makes a few more little quips like this (“The crinoid thing (or was it an echinodern? His school biology had scarcely prepared my for this!“, ibid 34) as the story progresses toward an ending reminiscent of Lovecraft’s “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” albeit with one last, final and perhaps thematically appropriate twist as Sally gives as a glimpse what might be Yog-Sothoth…

The original story has never been reprinted since Lurid Confessions, except in the French translation, but Robert M. Price allowed it to be republished by the Lovecraft eZine in 2013. So if you wish, prepare yourself and read “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom.”


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

 

“Cthulhu of the Dead Sea” (2015) by Inkeri Kontro

The organism appears unrelated to previously discovered species, therefore we named it Halofractal cthulhu.
—Inkeri Kontro, “Cthulhu of the Dead Sea” in She Walks In Shadows (2015) 205

In 1994, a species of spider was dubbed Pimoa cthulhu; in 2005 a moth was given the scientific name Speiredonia cthulhuiA pair of microorganisms in wood termites were named Cthulhu macrofasciculumque and Cthylla microfasciculumque in 2013, and just recently in 2019, an extinct echinoderm was declared Sollasina cthulhu.

Scientists are horror fans too.

While the impetus of Inkeri Kontro’s “Cthulhu of the Dead Sea” is a tongue-in-cheek rip from the headlines, the story as it develops is much more serious. Hardcore science fiction, all the Lovecraftian jokes slowly disappearing against a much more monstrously plausible reality.

Fans used to pastiche and supernatural explanations might be a little put-off by the lack of Necronomicons and old familiar names, but that is the essential appeal of the story: this isn’t about “What if Cthulhu was real?” in the traditional sense of “What if Lovecraft’s fiction were real history?” 

Instead, we are left to contemplate simpler facts and their implications. Halofractal cthulhu is a microorganism, not a mountain that walked or stumbled. Yet the conclusions are mountainous, and monstrous….even as the outcome is tragic. It is a rare story that attempts something like that, much less succeeds. Yet “Cthulhu of the Dead Sea” certainly achieves everything it aims for.

Inkeri Contro is a postdoctoral researcher in material physics at the University of Helsinki. Every character and detail of the story reflects true; even the muttered perkele when the Finnish Anna, visiting with her Danish colleagues in Copenhagen, feels honest. These are the people you meet at these conferences, this is how these honest Scandinavian nerds would feel and react to such a person, to such a discovery.

In another writer’s hands, more attention might be placed on Anna. We don’t get her full background, even her full name. Hints of a personality—parents watching her cat back home, trouble sleeping in this foreign country where everyone speaks Danish and has to remember to speak English when she appears—but the lack of detail works here. Ambiguity remains, long into the story, especially with Anna’s dreams. The initiated reader is left always wondering when the turn is going to come, when is Cthulhu, the big C, going to step on the page…

They won’t be disappointed when cthulhu finally makes its big splash instead.

“Cthulhu and the Dead Sea” was first published in She Walks In Shadows (2015) and its American paperback release Cthulhu’s Daughters (2016). It has not been reprinted.


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

 

“The Madonna of the Abbatoir” (2014) by Anne M. Pillsworth

 New England has long been my spiritual home, and the region informs much of my fiction. One day I hope to find Lovecraft’s portals to his mythical towns of witch-haunted Arkham and Kingsport, shadowed Innsmouth and accursed Dunwich. Until then, I’ll just have to write about them.
—Anne M. Pillsworth, “About Me”

Most readers come to later Mythos fiction as initiated adepts rather than neophytes. They have learned the names of peoples, places, tomes, and entities; know what shadow came over Innsmouth and out of time, the twisting branches of the Pickman and Whateley family trees, and are more willing than most cultists to yell “Iä!” Writers fall into the same category, and to an extant face a more serious problem: how to approach the Mythos when the mystery is already gone?

Some writers turn to pastiche, and some embrace it. The latter is essentially what Anne M. Pillsworth does in “The Madonna of the Abattoir” (2014): her protagonists are undead and undying Mythos sorcerers and make no bones to hide that fact from the reader. Although there are Ornes and Pickmans and a Miskatonic University, they are not those exactly mentioned in Lovecraft’s Mythos; her setting is a couple generations earlier, in the late 1850s or 1860s. The Mythos is Pillsworth’s setting and workspace, but she makes no effort to try and capture the same moods as Lovecraft & co.—instead, she leads the knowing reader on. Because for all their knowledge and foreboding, they can’t be sure what is next…

But they can suspect. That’s half the fun.

Like a horror movie told through the eyes of the killer, the readers are in on the secret from the beginning, but there is still a plot to unfold, characters to expand on. Like the gaslamp fantasy of Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk or “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, the period brings with it certain considerations for the treatment of female characters and sexuality; when Pickman wants Patience Orne to model for him, he does not approach her directly but a male relative as representative—and they go through the charade of propriety and appearances, acting out the pretense of women-as-property or women-as-delicate-flowers, etc. etc.

All the more pointless than in most Victoriana, because of who & what Patience Orne is.

Two easels in the center of the room held studies for Pickman’s Madonnas. Studies! The preliminary oils had finer detail than many finished paintings. Still more detailed were the pencil sketches tacked to the easels, which ranged in subject from the scrollwork on a marble mantelpiece to a heap of refuse in which each fishbone and tattered shoe, each apple core and moldy crust, was distinct. Only the Madonnas’ faces were left vague, their features barely suggested.
—Anne M. Pillsworth, “The Madonna of the Abattoir”

From a certain perspective, the Mythos abounds in Madonnas: women who approach some nonhuman ideal, perfect and almost unapproachable, often vaguely seen yet often felt. The unnamed Ape Princess in “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, the Deep One who married Obed Marsh in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”; Lavinia Whateley in “The Dunwich Horror”, Eliza Tillinghast Curwen in “Facts in the Case of Charles Dexter Ward”… and the female body has often been the subject of art, either to portray an idealized reality or to reveal a hidden truth. Pillsworth tackles these ideas directly, and it is the mood of the characters and situation which hold and sustain interest, rather than any further revelations of Mythos lore that may be coming.

Like many Mythos stories, there is a cyclic tone to “The Madonna of the Abattoir”—not a sequel to “Pickman’s Model” in the sense of “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, but a distant and ancestral prequel which explores and reiterates, in the end, something of the same eternal idea in one of many variations:

She still wore the Madonna’s shroud, ensanguined as in the painting. Of course it was, for how else but from life could Pickman have captured the precise way blood would bloom through the linen weave? (ibid.)

There is an argument to be made that repetition dilutes the original idea, but the difference in style and tone between Pillsworth, Kiernan, and Lovecraft is such that while recognizable as distinct episodes with connective elements—as a Mythos of their own—each has something different to say, and the side-by-side comparison speaks more as a commentary on medium than anything else. Be it paint on canvas, or photography, or crude film reels: how best to capture that terrible reality, how else to capture it except from life?

“The Madonna of the Abbatoir” was published on Tor.com in 2014; it has been republished as a separate chapbook. Anne M. Pillsworth’s other Mythos fiction includes “The Patience Rose” (2009) and her young adult Redemption’s Heir series Summoned (2014) and Fathomless (2015). Along with Ruthanna Emrys, she writes the Lovecraft Reread series for Tor.com.


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

 

“The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff & “In The Yaddith Time” (2007) by Ann K. Schwader

He had seen Yaddith, yet retained his mind,
And come back safely from the Ghooric zone,
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Alienation,” Fungi from Yuggoth XXXII

This is the first appearance of the terms “Yaddith” and “the Ghooric zone” in Lovecraft’s work; though references to the former alien world would appear in his collaboration with E. Hoffmann Price “Through the Gates of the Silver Key,” and a few other places. Neither exactly captured the popular imagination in the same way as R’lyeh or Yuggoth, Carcosa or Innsmouth. Yet this one sonnet served as inspiration for several notable works.

“Discovery of the Ghooric Zone — March 15, 2337” (1977) by Richard Lupoff owes more to New Wave science fiction than Lovecraftian horror or sensibilities; it is the Mythos as space opera, as an epic of an unseen future, an exploration of the solar system as pure as any Golden Age sci fi epic, a looking-forward to cyberpunk, but it is also a literal and literary homage to H. P. Lovecraft—the man, the myth, the legend.

It opens up with what the first interracial LGBTQ+ threesome in Mythos fiction.

They were having sex when the warning gong sounded, Gomati and Njord and Shoten.  […]

Njord Freyr, born in the Laddino Imperium of Earth, had retained his masculinity even as he had undergone the customary implantations, excisions and modifications of pubescent cyborging. […]

Sri Gomati, of Khmeric Gondwanaland, had similarly retained her female primary characteristics in function and conformation even though she had opted for the substitution of metallic labia and clitoris, which replacement Njord Freyr found at times irritating.

But Shoten, Shoten Binayakya, fitted with multiply-configurable genitalia, remained enigmatic, ambiguous as to his or her own origin […]
—Richard Lupoff, “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”

Readers today might smile at Njord’s private crisis of masculinity, reminiscent of the same issues apparent in “Gilgamesh in the Outback” (1986) by Robert Silverberg, but the delineation of gender roles echoes in a very real way the alienation of Lovecraft’s poem. Njord clings to his masculine identity while at the same time feeling inadequate compared to the cybernetically enhanced Shoten:

Njord, the male crew member, cursed, distracted by the radar gong, angered by Gomati’s inattention, humiliated by her amusement and by her drawing away from himself and Shoten. Njord felt his organ grow flaccid at the distraction, and for the moment he regretted the decision he had made prior to the cyborging operations of his adolescence, to retain his organic phallus and gonads. A cyborged capability might have proven more potently enduring in the circumstances but Njord’s pubescent pride had denied the possibility of his ever facing inconvenient detumescence. (ibid.)

The attention on biological gender, gender transition surgery, and polyamory in general may seem unnecessary in a Mythos story, but in the case of “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” the trio are representatives of their respective future states as well as plot points along a gender spectrum; their interactions echo the places and peoples that they represent, all of future humanity striving together for this voyage of exploration. And, at the same time, the difference between 1977 and 2337 was never so vast as in the openness in sexuality…to which Lupoff wrote:

Cut to logo representing sex.

The major sexual attitude of the time was androgyny, rivaled but not equaled by the cult of pan-sexuality. Androgyny implies recognition of the full sexual potential of each individual. Former distinctions were abandoned. It was no longer regarded as improper to pursue a relationship of male to male or female to female; nor was it required to have two partners in a relationship. Practices ranging from onanism to mass interplay became acceptable.

The pan-sexualists held that androgyny was needlessly limiting in scope. If one could relate to any man or woman—why not to a giraffe? A condor? A cabbage? A bowl of sand? A machine?

The ocean?

The sky?

To the cosmos?

To God? (ibid.)

The format of the “cutscene” is cinematic; Lupoff draws out the action with excerpts on the history of the last four hundred years, anecdotes, personalities, commentaries on culture reminiscent of Dune (1965). It looks forwards and backwards at the same time; the Apollo 11 mission that landed humans on the moon occurred only seven years prior, in 1969, and yet:

Why has it taken until 2337 to reach — Yuggoth? When space flight began almost as long ago as the era Sri Gomati babbles about. The first extraterrestrial landings took place in 1969. Mars thirty years later. Remember the stirring political slogan that we all learned as children, as children studying the history of our era? Persons will set foot on another planet before the century ends! That was the twentieth century, remember?”

“Every schoolchild knows,” Shoten affirmed wearily.

Gomati, recovered from the shock of Njord’s blow, spoke; “We could have been here two hundred years ago, Njord Freyr. But fools on Earth lost heart. They began, and lost heart. They began again—and lost heart again. And again. Four times they set out, exploring the planets. Each time they lost heart, lost courage, lost interest. Were distracted by wars. Turned resources to nobler purposes. (ibid.)

There are more explicit Mythos references; and more explicit references to Lovecraft too. The story is set on the four hundredth anniversary of the death of H. P. Lovecraft, and if the future history is fantastical and impossible, it is also fascinating, an extended meditation that seeks to bridge past and future, weird fiction and New Wave, in a way no other author at the time did—and would be the spiritual precursor to works of Lovecraftian space opera such as Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monett’s trilogy “Boojum” (2008)“Mongoose” (2009), and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).

Yet those three do not come back safely from the Ghooric zone.

Three decades later, Ann K. Schwader published In the Yaddith Time (2007), a sonnet-cycle deliberately patterned after and echoing Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth.” It begins with a quotation from “Alienation,” and continues on a similar theme to Lupoff’s—humanity’s faltering voyage into the unknown solar system, and into familiar territory:

[…] Our captain pointed
us toward the chaos framed beyond that stone
“Through there,” he cried, “awaits the Ghooric zone!”
—Ann K. Schwader, “Sacrifice Eyes,” In the Yaddith Time 14

The literary DNA has echoes of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997), and Ghosts of Mars (2001), the strange extraterrestrial relics left in space for humans to find, the madness overtaking captain and crew. Yet Schwader’s vision is an exploration of Lovecraft’s Mythos, told through her own imagery and captured in her own verse, and again there is that weird echo of Lupoff’s novella:

Writ strange, Earth’s chronicle was what we saw.

Past bled into the present, then ran on

down corridors torn deep in living stone,

revealing future horrors still unspawned

which showed mankind had never been alone.
—Ann K. Schwader, “The Walls of Prophecy,” In the Yaddith Time 26

The specific image here recalls Robert Bloch’s “Fane of the Black Pharaoh” (1937), but it echoes the secret history which underlies Lovecraft’s fiction, and Lupoff’s secret future unveiled piecemeal to his readers: humanity has never been alone, and never will be…

Schwader goes farther than Lupoff, at least in terms of distance; her astronauts go beyond Yuggoth, to the library of Celano, to Carcosa and the Lake of Hali, and finally to Yaddith. In conceptual terms, she travels less far: the bones of the story are old as sailing ships, captains gone mad, visiting places that test the imagination, loyalties tested beyond endurance by death and travails. No playing with gender, and indeed few references to how Earth had changed in whatever span of time separates the “now” of our contemporary period with the “then” of her sonnet-cycle. It is timeless in its futurity, and for her the focus is on the moment, the alien worlds to be explored, not the Earth left behind…except once, and that in a dream.

[…] Sudden night

spread shadowwings in one vast inky smear,

erasing daylight as a shriek of fear

arose from every throat: the stars turn right!
—Ann K. Schwader, “A Dream of Home,” In the Yaddith Time 28

Both “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” and In the Yaddith Time remains true to the Mythos as Lovecraft conceived it, the weird forces beyond human ken; what they are faced with when they travel out beyond the safe borders of the known into the outer dark. Yet both also go beyond Lovecraft: these are stories of exploration, in a sense which Lovecraft could only vaguely imagine. Space travel was never a reality for him, but Lupoff and Schwader lived through that—and could extrapolate that much further.

Richard Lupoff’s “Discovery of the Ghooric Zone — March 15, 2337” was first published in Chrysalis (1977), and republished in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990, Arkham House; 1998, Del Rey) and his collection Claremont Tales (2001, Golden Gryphon Press).

Ann K. Shwader’s In the Yaddith Time was published in 2007 by Mythos books. It has been reprinted in her collection Twisted in Dream: The Collected Weird Poetry of Ann K. Schwader (2011, Hippocampus Press).


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

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model” (1927)

“Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” is a sequel in every sense of the word. Not only does Kiernan unfold the next chapter in the narrative, peeling away more onion-layers to reveal deeper mysteries, but it is a continuation of the themes of the original story in a new direction. Without so many words, Kiernan asks and answers the unobvious question: What’s better than a photograph from life?

The story could have been labeled “Eliot’s Tale”—Eliot being the person to whom Thurber, the protagonist in Lovecraft’s story, had been addressing his narrative to. Now three years later, Thurber was dead and it was Eliot picking up the pieces of the man’s life, sorting through the letters and drawings, uncovering something that Thurber, in Lovecraft’s story, failed to mention: Pickman’s nudes.

It isn’t some lingering prudery that kept nudity out of Lovecraft’s story, nor is it any particular prurience of Kiernan’s that places it at the center of hers. Lovecraft’s focus was on one of Pickman’s models, the necrophagous critters that haunt Boston’s old tunnels; Kiernan’s focus is on his other model—a young woman whom any artist might sketch in the nude to hone their skills at anatomy, and who catches Eliot’s attention.

The development of the investigation is leisurely, with specific details that are highly suggestive but never so explicit as to reveal the central mystery. Hints along the way, artfully arranged, touching on some of Kiernan’s favorite themes…echoes of “The Call of Cthulhu,” “The Hound,” old family shames and lesbian desires—and a particular anatomical feature—that echo Kiernan’s own stories like “Houndwife” (2010), “pas-en-arrière” (2007), and Daughter of Hounds (2007). Always keeping that toehold in reality, the story coded with all the care of a good hoax, as when Kiernan discusses what might well have been the inspiration for the story:

It might have only been a test reel, or perhaps 17,000 or so frames, some twelve minutes, give or take, excised from a far longer film. All in all, it was little but than a blatantly pornographic pastiche of the widely circulated 1918 publicity stills of Theda Bara lying in various risqué poses with a human skeleton (for J. Edward Gordon’s Salomé).
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pickman’s Other Model” in Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart 276

thedaskeleton

I overheard, when the lights came back up, that the can contianing the reel bore two titles, The Necrophile and The Hound’s Daughter, and also bore two dates – 1923 and 1924. (ibid)

As much as Lovecraft and others liked to portray the artist as portraying some supernal truth, Kiernan knows that reality tends to be much baser. So much is the case when Eliot finally meets Pickman’s other model in the penultimate chapter: a tired young woman who has seen a little too much of the world, with bad habits and a filthy mouth. Living in the present but still haunted by the past.

A past which catches up to her in the final chapter, hinting as Lovecraft did of more in heaven and earth than was dreamt of, darker and uglier realities at play which even the best of art could only hint at as a shadow in the final flickering frames on a black-and-white reel.

The success of “Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” is less in revelation than in suggestion and presentation. This is a story not so much for readers who want another piece of the Mythos puzzle as much as those who enjoy the process of discovery…and how some stories and images stay with you, for a long while. That is the other question, and perhaps as close to a theme of Kiernan’s narrative and her utmost reflection on Lovecraft’s: How do you unsee such things? You can’t.

“Pickman’s Other Model (1930)” was first published in Kiernan’s Sirenia Digest (March 2008), it has been reprinted Black Wings: New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart (2012), Beneath an Oil-Dark Sea: The Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan Volume Two (2015), and Houses Under The Sea (2018).


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