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?
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?”
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 Time14
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 Time26
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 Time28
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).
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
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.
Next thing I saw on the computer screen was a close-up of a drawing in a book of what looked to me like a big, enormous cock with tentacles and a beaked glans. I thought, Oh, Jesus, he’s the one for sure been cutting up the hookers. He’s got some kind of psychosexual thing going.
Gil slurred, “This’s Cthulhu.” Then he started crying.
Richard Upton Pickman holds a particular fascination with some writers in the Mythos. Artists have often struggled with censorship, obscenity, and unveiling true forms to the naked eye. It’s a very small conceptual leap to add an erotic element to Pickman’s work, like “Pickman’s Necrotica” in Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomicon(2010), the films in “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan…and the camshow websites designed by Pickman in “Pickman’s Centerfold, or: The Dunwich Ho.”
There is a certain reverent irreverence to Nancy Holder’s prose, right from the title to the very last line. It’s a free-wheeling, open approach to the Mythos fiction which borrows liberally from previous works, but isn’t beholden to any of them. So while Cthulhu and the Necronomicon and all make an appearance, it is in service to this story and its plotline, not to some larger fabric of Mythos fiction. “Pickman’s Centerfold” is not a sequel or prequel or really in any way connected with the narrative of “Pickman’s Model.”
The story itself is a bit light for the subject; despite appearing in (and probably written exclusively for) the erotic horror Hot Blood series, titillation and gore are not really the point, and Holder never crosses the line into either splatterpunk or erotica. Pornography and prostitution, with all its tawdry bits, are the waters in which FBI Special Agent Eliot Blake and his erstwhile comrade Gilman Innsmouth swim, like a particularly screwy episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit crossed with the film 8MM.
Hookers are people too, and we have a lot of those people in Boston, don’t let nobody lie to you that w have “clean up” our cit. It gets cold here. (ibid, 238)
That approach, of an FBI Special Agent hunting a serial killer running afoul of the Mythos is at once familiar to many readers but quirky enough to keep them reading. Alan Moore did much the same thing in “The Courtyard” (1994) and its sequel. This approach helps in that it brings an “outsider” ignorant of the Mythos to come investigating, letting the readers re-live their own initiation into the weird mysteries. Holder draws on some established tropes in the process, some of more relevant than others. At one point, for example, Agent Gil pulls out a pile of books:
So wham! the books got put on the table front and center, and the first one had a picture of a really buffed-out Hannibal Lecter on the front and the title was Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos. I picked the next one up and title was At the Mountains of Madness, with a corpse in a hooded robe on the cover.
I waited for Gil to explain. (ibid, 242)
Gil couldn’t explain, and maybe Holder couldn’t either. Having works of Mythos fiction actually be present in the stories themselves is an old trick, going back to August Derleth placing Arkham House titles and copies of Weird Tales in the Mythos stories he wrote after the death of H. P. Lovecraft—Moore did the same thing in Neonomicon, Robert Bloch did it in his novel Strange Eons (1978). But whereas Bloch & Derleth were trying to establish the “truth” of Lovecraft’s Mythos in their narrative, and Moore was pursuing a grand metafictional narrative, Holder’s use here feels like a misstep. There are narrative ramifications which go unexplored: if Lovecraft lived, wrote, and died, then how has the FBI not run across the name “Richard Upton Pickman” before? The title-drops feel like an unwanted tie-in to a story that is deliberately trying to pursue its own separate narrative.
That possible misstep aside, the real focus on the latter part of the story is on the revelations: what Pickman is actually up to, what agents Blake and Innsmouth actually uncover. Despite the title, there is no centerfold—this is the digital era—and no “Dunwich Ho.” A grave disappointment for some readers, certainly, but also exemplary of one of the unconscious problems of this story: the women.
Pickman’s websites are implicitly heterosexual, places for camgirls to post their content and draw in clients; later in the story there is the suggestion he runs sites for men as well, but again exclusively for a heterosexual (if not always human) audience. The women themselves are only present in the story as nameless victims.
She was a truly awesome sight, with silicone tits of rounded perfection, big red nipples pointed directly toward the North Star. Her pussy had been shaved, and she looked fantastic. I figured, professional girl. Then I realized: one of Prickman’s girls. (ibid, 246)
There are a lot of possible invisible constraints here: maybe editorial policy at Hot Blood emphasizes heterosexual relations, maybe it would kill the pacing if Eliot Blake focused in on the identities of the female victims, maybe it’s just in keeping with Blake’s personality to treat all adult entertainers as prostitutes, characterized by their physical attributes rather than their names or personalities, and Holder was honestly reflecting that. Whatever the case, the women end up as ciphers, present only to be sex objects and then die gruesomely.
The human women aren’t the only ones that go nameless, but at least when Cthulhu’s wife/mate appears there’s a deliberate shift in tone: when the focus goes from “he” (Cthulhu) to “she,” it becomes retrospectively obvious that “she” has been the major driver for the story, not Pickman or Cthulhu. Holder doesn’t go into the details of “her”—doesn’t even her use common appellation—but it’s a rare story that puts Cthulhu and his mate on sexual parity, so to speak, and the revelation of what has really been going on works well.
“Pickman’s Centerfold, Or: The Dunwich Ho” was published in Hot Blood XI Fatal Attractions(2003); it has not been reprinted. Nancy Holder’s other Mythos work includes “In Arkham Town, Where I Was Bound” (2014), “Baubles” (2015), and “Nyarlathotep Came Down To Georgia” (2018), and she has taught Lovecraft at the University of California at San Diego and the Stonecoast Creative Writing Program at the University of Southern Maine.
Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Outsider”
Some of the trustees were still unhappy, but Christine’s stunning find of the tomb of the Black Pharoah Nephren-ka had commanded headlines across the globe.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins14
1897. Somewhere between Boston and Providence lies the small city of Widdershins, a quiet place where a man can start over…at least until the Liber Arcanorum drops into the lap of a closeted translator of dead languages and the bodies start piling up. Nothing like an unexpected mystery to bring two people together.
Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins (2013) is an historical paranormal romance with two little twists: the world is set in the same country as Lovecraft’s Mythos (Dr. Whyborne even went to college at Arkham), and the protagonists are two homosexual men. It may, in fact, be the first homosexual Mythos romance novel—somewhat of a weird distinction to make, but previous Mythos romance novels like Margaret L. Carter’s The Windwalker’s Mate(2008) and Robin Wolfe’s Arkham Dreams (2011) were focused on heterosexual relationships, and homosexual characters and relationships remain rather rare in the Mythos by comparison. The closest comparable work in the field is probably “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman.
The depictions of the men and the challenges they face are sympathetic; the construction of the setting is very competent. Hawk does their research:
A: But the research into the period!! How much did you actually do to capture the period as well as the paranormal element?
JLH: As much as I can! I have a replica Sears & Roebuck catalog from 1897 so I could figure out what sorts of goods and furnishings an average person in the period would have in their home. And I managed to find plans for middle class homes and hotels of the era online, which was a major boon.
My biggest problems research-wise actually came from the American setting. Casually glancing over the history section, you’d think America in the 1800s was nothing but the Civil War, followed up by the western expansion. At times it wasn’t easy to find out about the day to day life of people living in the northeast, especially if I needed something really specific. Most of the “daily life” books of the period center on Victorian England rather than Gilded Age America, and although there is some overlap, there are a lot of differences beyond drinking coffee versus tea.
—Author Interview: Jordan L. Hawk
The Mythos elements are also rather refreshingly grounded: Arkham and the Necronomicon and all exist, but to the majority of the world (and the two protagonists), they are but part of the setting. The protagonists only discover gradually that there are secret cults about and some brands of paranormal science actually work, if you know how to pronounce the Aklo. Once that is established, given an expert in dead languages and a genuine grimoire, progress is fairly rapid.
The tone established falls somewhere between Cthulhu by Gaslightand Lois H. Gresh’s Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu: The Adventure of the Deadly Dimensions(2017); magic exists, there’s a mystery afoot, and by chapter 7 the two principals have met and teamed up to solve it. As they continue through the adventure, the two grow closer; the common goal, trials, and tribulations provide the crisis for both men to open up, commiserate, empathize, and grow fond of one another.
“Damn it, Griffin, fuck me,” I growled.
—Jordan L. Hawk, Widdershins152
There is a sex scene. Not a weird one; no naughty tentacles or atypical anatomies. It is no more or less than the same kind of scene that would appear, without comment, in any number of other novels; only the genders of the particulars are different. That in itself is almost exemplary of the attitude of the novel as a whole: the book is not a homosexual pornographic novel. There is more hanging between Whyborne & Griffin that Victorian reticence, personal and social boundaries that have to be overcome and guards let down; readers who just want to see the two get together have to wait for it.
Then there’s the small matter of saving the world.
While not written in a pulp style, there’s a pulpish appeal to Widdershins. The stakes rise like something in an Indiana Jones film, the protagonists have to take into account all the possibilities that magic and the Mythos bring to their setting, and there’s an action scene at least every couple of chapters to keep the pace up. The characters, even beyond the two protagonists, have their own motivations and hangups. The best supporting character is Dr. Christine Putnam, an archaeologist that has fought an uphill battle her entire professional life because of her gender—and succeeded. Her desire to retain her hard-won reputation almost gets her killed, but that’s all the more endearing.
Searchers after horror will have to haunt stranger places than Widdershins to find what they’re looking for, but it is a well-written novel in its own mode of historical paranormal romance. It never descends into any attempt to ape Lovecraft’s style like a bad pastiche, nor does it hold slavishly to the tropes of a roleplaying game. Hawk refers to Lovecraft’s setting, but she makes few direct references to any particular story so the story is fairly accessible to the lay reader—which is also rather rare for a Mythos novel.
Jordan L. Hawk’s Widdershins is the first in the Whyborne & Griffin series, which as of 2018 includes a total of 13 novels and novellas.
Katherine Morel is a painter, an aspiring mad scientist, and an honorary saint of Thud, bestower of the sacred word, obsquatulate. She is currently bruised and swollen due to extra grey matter being inserted into the space between her brain and skull and hopes to sleep it off in time to be in attenance at the marriage that changed over the millennium.
—Cthulhu Sex Magazine, Vol. I, Issue 13
Cthulhu Sex magazine was the brainchild of Michael Morel, and graduated over the course of its run from a small black-and-white chapbook illustrated with crude, pixelated images of sperm to a slick, full-sized semi-prozine with color covers, photographs, and digital artwork. A collection of material from the magazine was issued in 2005 as Horror Between the Sheets. In the first issue and that final collection is printed (with slight changes) “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” by Katherine Morel.
The poem is an almost perfect encapsulation of the magazine as a whole. While Cthulhu is in the title, it never appears in the body text. The tone is light, the verses violent, darkly humorous, and sexually explicit.
Twas through their connection she passed her infection
—Katherine Morel, “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—”, Horror Between the Sheets 36
In the 1990s, poetry would continue to play its part in fandom, being featured in prominent ‘zines & journals such as the Arkham Sampler and Crypt of Cthulhu—but there were editorial limits to what those ‘zines would publish. Hardcore horror, the splatterpunk style of violent and gory horror fiction that took its cues from slasher and exploitation films (and, reaching back into the dim mists of time, the weird terror pulps), had few outlets.
To see her reflection,
Caused him an erection,
Yet something seemed the slightest bit weird. (ibid.)
Cthulhu Sex became an outlet and medium for fiction and art that couldn’t be posted elsewhere. Not much of it dealt explicitly with Cthulhu, Lovecraft, or the Mythos; it didn’t have to. The title was a statement and a challenge, just as it is in Katherine Morel’s poem. The title gives context to the text.
In 1998, people could still remember when HIV was a death sentence and not one to be long-deferred. Japanese tentacle erotica had hit the shores of the United States with Maeda Toshio’s Urotsukidōji and La Blue Girl, and were already the subject of jokes about “naughty tentacles” on the nascent internet. There was a zeitgeist there, mostly untapped as yet… until Katherine Morel’s “Cthulhu Sex.”
she scratched her complexion,
so that bloody tentacles appeared. (ibid.)
The tagline for Cthulhu Sex was “Blood, Sex & Tentacles.” Katherine Morel’s poem was an anthem for the magazine, an invocation for what was to be from 1998 to 2007. She captured, however briefly, the mood and attitude, right at the outset.
“Bethmoora,” Paul said. “And no, it’s not Israeli. Actually, the roots aren’t traceable to any specific language or dialect. But it’s still…foreign.”
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu141
Four million people asleep, dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind, but no one hears them.
– Lord Dunsany, “Bethmoora” in A Dreamer’s Tales (1910)
A few years after the birth of the 21st century, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Dunsany was inspired to create his own artificial mythology—not a substitute national mythos a la J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but something new and largely unprecedented. He combined the love of the commonplace with the desire for the exotic, and wrapped it together in language reminiscent of the King James Bible and ancient Grecian odes. Stories like “Idle Days on the Yann” directly inspired the dream-quests of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter…and many others besides.
For Yvonne Navarro, the questers are Paul and Macy.
“Meet Me on the Other Side” is smarter than just an update of Dunsany’s old formula where seekers tired of mundane life look for the key of dreams, the path that leads Beyond the Fields We Know, escape from the here and the now. Like many a goof Mythos story, it mixes fact with fiction; Paul first finds reference to Bethmoora in that ancient and terrible tome the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana(1994) by Dan Harms. The questers too are not run down by everyday life—they’re thrill-seekers, adventurers, explorers in their own right.
Bethmoora was out there, all right. Just waiting to be rediscovered. Revitalized. And they were just the people to do it.
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu144
The discoveries and revelations when they come are almost perfunctory; old tropes dusted off and brought out because that’s the cycle of a Mythos story: Macy is the latest Lavinia, destined for a bit of cosmic miscegenation and birthing of eldritch abominations. Yet the response is different, and what makes the story.
Paul and Macy like a challenge.
Navarro is an old pro at genre fiction; she could easily have spun this story off into an entire novel. Urban explorers in the not-quite-abandoned city in the Dreamlands, flashbacks to old adventures, the slow peeling-of-the-onion, one layer of revelation coming at a time as things build inevitably to a climax—instead, she rips the bandaid off in a couple paragraphs of exposition. The backstory is something Mythos fans have read again and again for decades. “Meet Me on the Other Side” seeks to give the readers something new, and it delivers.
The benefit of having tropes and formula is that they’re building blocks, stepping stones and shortcuts that writers can use to go beyond—and one of the great failures of many Mythos writers is that they try to only ape Lovecraft or Dunsany, to regurgitate old ideas rather than to subvert expectations or push forward with fresh takes.
Navarro does make the leap. How many other writers have had their protagonists look on conceiving and birthing tentacled horrors and the inevitable end of the world as a challenge? It is absolutely a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian attitude that humans are so small in the grand scheme of things that there is little they can do…and not an unwelcome one. The Dreamlands stories do not all embrace or express Lovecraft’s cosmicism, nor need every echo of his work embrace nihilistic horror.
“Meet Me on the Other Side” was published in The Children of Cthulhu (2002), and has not been reprinted. Navarro’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes the novelization of the film Hellboy (2004) and “Feeding the Masses” (1992) and “WWRD” (2018).
Estela explained to me that Tloque Nahuaque, the Lord of the Near and the Nigh, had been to the Aztecs the Master of the Near and the Far, for they believed he is near all things and all things are near him.
—Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, “Tloque Nahuaque” in Future Lovecraft128
“Tloque Nahuaque” is an advanced Mythos story. One for initiates. This story requires readers to connect the dots. To understand where it is coming from and what it is saying requires more than a passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s corpus, and recent-ish developments in experimental physics; a passing familiarity with Aztec mythology is helpful, but García-Rosas provides the short version for readers.
It is marvelous to be able to have a story that can invoke a familiar Mythos entity not be attributes, or some purported quotation from the Necronomicon, but by reference to their attributes. To intimate to readers a new angle on an old mystery, a new interpretation on an existing concept, a new (or old) face for a familiar god.
What makes “Tloque Nahuaque” work, fundamentally, is that Lovecraft’s horrors in the 1920s and 30s were essentially contemporary. Pluto was discovered in 1930; Lovecraft casually associated this discovery with Yuggoth in “The Whisperer in Darkness” that was written around the same time. Einstein’s theory of General Relativity was rewriting physics and the universe as people knew it, and for all the grimoires and incantations, “The Dreams in the Witch House” was as much about advanced mathematics as magic.
Lovecraft’s Mythos works, fundamentally, because he tried to ground it in reality. The dividend that pays is that writers like García-Rosas, who are familiar with advances in physics, can extend and revisit those conceptions. It’s okay if a scientific theory is proved wrong; that only provides the basis for further understanding. New ideas are still applicable to old concepts—be they from the Aztec or Lovecraft Mythos.
Azathoth, by whatever name, can still be relevant to a contemporary audience.
“Tloque Nahuaque” is a narrative of mood and idea more than plot, reminiscent in some ways of “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite. It is episodic, jumbled, fragmentary, yet there is a thread of ideas that progresses from piece to piece. A collection of scraps that point toward a bigger picture. For the subject, it works. The mood sustains. There is no conclusion as such, only a culmination of the initial idea…but the vector of the narrative is clear; everything points to a suggestion of an ending that only initiates might fully grasp.
It should be noted that this tale attempts a new stage of the evolution of Mythos fiction. It has been justly said that much Mythos fiction fails for its redundancy: the same thing happens that happened in Arkham House books of fity years ago. Once we read certain book titles or demonic names we know what will happen. The story reduces to the collection of names, almost as if that were all most readers were looking for anyway. For new Mythos fiction to have any chance of being effective perhaps it must be scrupulously spare in its referenced to the received lore.
—Robert M. Price, The Shub-Niggurath Cycle187
This story can be read as one of the most homophobic stories in the Cthulhu Mythos. That in itself might explain why this first collaboration between Robert M. Price & Peter Cannon is a bit of an orphan. It has been published only twice, first in the ‘zine rimoire Vol. 1, # 1 (Spring 1993), and in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994), a volume edited by Price as part of the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction line. Neither Price nor Cannon has seen fit to reprint it in any of their subsequent collections, nor written much about it; though it is clear from Price’s editorial comments that Cannon probably wrote the bulk of it, attempting to emulate the style of M. R. James, and that Price supplied much of the theological background. It is therefore feasible that this collaboration operated similar to their later story “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996).
The Jamesian atmosphere may have suggested the religious theme, which is Dr. Price’s special area of expertise; the setting is Temphill, part of the Severn Valley setting created by Ramsey Campbell for his own Mythos stories. Campbell might be credited with one of the first overt references to homosexuality in Mythos fiction with his short story “Cold Print” (1969), though whether that was any inspiration on “The Curate of Temphill” or simply coincidence is unclear—James was British, and Campbell’s Severn Valley is the most prominent and memorable British setting for the Mythos outside of Exham Priory (“The Rats in the Walls”). The name itself recalls the Templars…and if one traces that line of thought, perhaps leads us to the inspiration for this story.
There are certain relatively obscure elements of homosexuality in the demi-monde of legend surrounding Christianity, if you look for it. One of these is the charge at their trials that the Knights Templar practiced sodomy; another is the Secret Gospel of Mark, an apochryphal text which reads in part:
And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God…naked man with naked man…
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle196
Price & Cannon quote this material almost verbatim from the original source; what the authors are doing here is taking known elements from Christian scholarship and weaving them together to form the Mythos “lore” that the protagonist, Rev. Morgan Ackerley, slowly uncovers. It is a genuine Lovecraftian approach, developing the “secret history” of the story with all the care and attention of a good hoax, only with very unconventional (for the Mythos) source materials; readers might compare it to how Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code(2003)created a narrative based on the remixed history, legend, and conspiracy theories of The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail(1982).
Where it gets problematic in the story is specific applications. One of the most prominent:
Shortly after deciding the vandalism episode was too trivial to report to the secular authorities, he received a solemn summons to the hospital in Brichester, where Ms. Radclyffe lay in a coma, the victim of violent rape. She expired before his arrival, never regaining consciousness.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle198
While the matter is treated by suggestion and implication rather than outright stated, Vita Radclyffe was a lesbian—unmarried, living with her “companion” Florence Trefusis, reading the lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness(1928) by Radclyffe Hall, and opposed to the domination of the local church by the previous curate, who had preached “You know, the woman shalt be subservient to her lord and master, her husband—obsolete rot like that.” (ibid 190) Her death by sexual assault is treated as horrific, but the why of it is hauntingly unclear…as with much in this story.
A large part of the mystery is on purpose. M. R. James was careful to leave much of the detail to the reader’s imagination, so certain mysteries would always remain. Readers might well argue that since Radclyffe had opposed the old curate, she would also oppose the new one, and so her death would benefit the conspiracy surrounding Temphill.
That doesn’t explain why Radclyffe was either a lesbian or specifically raped to death. Neither aspect of the character is a necessary detail for the purposes of her role in the story, but the fact that both were included strongly suggests that to the authors they were. The implications are therefore nasty: Radclyffe was included in the story because it needed a female antagonist to oppose a cabal of chauvinistic men, who were preaching the strong patriarchal version of the Bible; her opposition to this patriarchial slant would be stronger if she were a feminist—and disinterested in men generally, hence a lesbian; her death would be all the more horrific if it came about by the very thing she opposed, hence the rape.
Horror exists for violating taboos; the thrill of crossing a boundary, be it social, sexual, legal, religious, even geographic or physical is real. Rape and violent death are a part of that, and many slasher films eagerly combine sex and death, race and death, etc. Characters are introduced as predestined victims, with the only question being not if they will survive but how they will die. It is still an ugly thing to introduce a woman to the plot specifically for her to be raped to death a few pages later, but it is not beyond the pale: H. P. Lovecraft & Zealia Bishop story “The Curse of Yig” is built around a supernatural sexual assault.
The rape in “The Curate of Temphill” in nasty in part because of the ideology behind the attack. Would a man who opposed the group be raped to death? The new curate isn’t; he is instead initiated. Would a woman who was not a lesbian be raped to death? The option is not explored, and that in itself is a bit damning. The story, as brief as it is, only gives hints and suggestions to the actual nature of beliefs held by the old curate and his group…and this is where the homophobia really starts in the story.
In Ramsey Campbell’s “Cold Print,” homosexuality is a secondary aspect of the main character’s sexuality, which is primarily tied up with discipline, spanking, and sadomasochism in the grand tradition of British private schools, or at least the fetishistic pornographic depiction of the same, with hints of pedophilia—all appropriate for the character Campbell was developing. Price & Cannon seem to have taken their inspiration from “Secret Mark” and the implication that Jesus Christ’s hidden teachings involved a pedophilic encounter with a young boy—and perhaps by extension touching on general allegations of pedophilia and inappropriate sexual contact on the part of Catholic and Anglican priests, accounts of which have become much more public in the past several decades.
All of which Price & Cannon bring together in their finale, where they hint strongly at this turn of events with:
His parishioner had subsequently invited h im to a special meeting of select members of the Temphill and Goatswood youth groups, where certain wondrous ceremonies would be performed.
—”The Curate of Temphill” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle200
Basically, there is no male homosexual in “The Curate of Temphill” who is not also implicitly a pedophile. This might not have been the intended depiction, but the story is short and the cast is small: we aren’t given any other details to go by. It should be mentioned that this conflation of homosexuality and pedophilia is not pursued by Price or Cannon in any other story. Maybe it was just the pursuit of this one set of ideas as a connecting theme—homosexual Templars, a gospel that preaches homosexual pedophilia, the prevalence of homosexual pedophilia among some priests—that suggested the story.
Yet each of those individual elements also embodies homophobia: the Templars were charged with sodomy because homosexuality was a sin; Secret Mark is blasphemous because it suggests Jesus had gay sex with a young boy; the most popular depiction of sexual assault by priests against youth is that they targeted altar boys for abuse, with the homosexual element heightening the scandal for churches that still often disapprove of homosexuality. All of that plus the ultimately needless death-by-rape of Vita Radclyffe makes this a short story with a lot of issues.
Readers at this point might ask “How does all this relate to Shub-Niggurath?”—and it does not, directly. Shub-Niggurath is associated with Campbell’s Severn Valley setting via nearby Goatswood and its inhabitants in “The Moon-Lens” (1964). The Templars were accused of worshipping Baphomet, who in turn was famously depicted as the Satanic Goat by Eliphas Levi, and Price in his introduction to The Shub-Niggurath Cycle thematically connected this figure with “The Black Goat of the Woods,” often taken as a title for Shub-Niggurath. It is implied that the entity that raped and killed Vita Radclyffe was a satyresque figure, which would make this a rare masculine depiction of Shub-Niggurath, comparable to that in “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins.
The impact of female editors of pulp magazines is not always acknowledged, and this is especially true when considering the legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and Mythos fiction. Three of these women stand out: Dorothy McIlwraith, the editor of Weird Tales (1940-1954); Mary Gnaedinger, editor of Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953); and Cele Goldsmith Lalli, editor of Fantastic (1958-1965). Together, these three women would essentially bridge the gap, accounting for most Mythos magazine fiction that was published between 1940 and 1965.
After his death on 15 March 1937, Lovecraft’s literary legacy continued in Weird Tales, which had been the home to most of his professional fiction and continued to be the mainstay of his most devoted fans. Editor Farnsworth Wright published at least one Lovecraft item, be it a story or verse, in nearly every issue for the next three years—including collaborations with Hazel Heald and Zealia Bishop, stories which Wright had previously rejected, and material from amateur publications.
In late 1938, Weird Tales was sold to William Delaney, owner of Short Stories, Inc. and publisher of the successful Short Stories pulp magazine, which was edited by Dorothy McIlwraith, a Canadian woman of Scottish descent. (What About Dorothy McIlwraith?) The Weird Tales offices were moved to New York City in November of that year, with editor Farnsworth Wright moving his family from Chicago for the transition. Beginning with the December 1938 issue, Weird Tales officially listed its offices in New York. Robert Weinberg claimed that McIlwraith was made associate editor of Weird Tales at this point, but if so she was never listed as such in the magazine itself. (The Weird Tales Story6)
Farnsworth Wright had been suffering from progressive Parkinson’s disease for years, and the finances for Weird Tales continued to worsen. In part this may have been due to the death of prominent writers like Henry S. Whitehead (1932), Robert E. Howard (1936), and H. P. Lovecraft (1937), but it was also due in part to new competition. While Weird Tales had been the predominant purveyor of fantastic fiction in the pulp field since its inception in 1923, outlasting rivals such as Ghost Stories (1926-1932), Tales of Magic and Mystery (1927-1928), and Strange Tales (1931-1933), but in 1939 several strong competitors emerged, including Strange Stories (1939-1941), Unknown (1939-1943), Famous Fantastic Mysteries (1939-1953), Fantastic Adventures (1939-1953), Planet Stories (1939-1955), and Startling Stories (1939-1955).
Added to these woes, New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia began cracking down on nude covers on the newstands; while aimed at the weird terror or “shudder” pulps, the ban also caught Weird Tales, which had been using nudes from Chicago artist Margaret Brundage for the cover, to both fan appreciation and consternation. In addition, Brundage was unable to continue to move to New York and found shipping her delicate pastels economically unfeasible—especially when publisher Bill Delaney cut payment rates for artists. (Alluring Art of Margaret Brundage32) Delany also tried changes to reduce costs and increase sales:
Delaney was more concerned than Henneberger or Cornelius in turning the pulp into a paying, profit-making proposition. His first idea was to increase the page count from 128 to 160 pages. He also used a cheaper quality of paper, making the issue look even thicker than before. The first of these thick issues appeared in February 1939. However, the idea did not catch on and sales dropped steadily. Another of Delaney’s ideas was to cut rates, both to artists and authors. the policy showed as quality quickly dropped. In another effort to boost sales, the size was cut to 128 pages in September 1939 and the price was dropped to 15 cents. The magazine still did not sell. (The Weird Tales Story6)
In January 1940, Farnsworth Wright left Weird Tales; the magazine by this point had gone to a bimonthly schedule, and his final issue as editor was March of that year. While some sources claim Wright retired or resigned, what few firsthand accounts I’ve come across suggest he was fired:
I am no longer connected with Weird Tales. Miss McIlwraith has taken over the editorship. The publisher was losing too heavily, and he figured that the elimination of my salary would help to cut down the deficit.
—Farnsworth Wright to Virgil Finlay, 17 Jan 1940, BOK 66
The magazine has two stories and four poems of mine (accepted by Farnsworth Wright) still unpublished, but I think seriously of withdrawing these, even though I need the money like hell and am not likely to find another market for these particular items. Wright was let out by the publishers to cut down expenses, and W.T.is now being edited by a woman, who also edits Strange Stories. [sic] It is to be hoped that Wright will soon secure another editorship, or perhaps even start a rival magazine himself. In the meanwhile, W.T.‘s best contributors are sticking with him, in the belief that he has had a raw deal.
Wright was cold-bloodedly fired from Weird Tales, because of circulation drop. It’s being carried on by McIlwraith. Wright is hit pretty hard, and our gang has pledged to boycott the mag. If Wright succeeds in getting another publisher interested in backing a new weird mag, we’ll submit only to him. It’s all we can do for one of the best and most liked editors in our field. With Wellman, Juttner, Hamilton, Quinn, Williamson, and others not submitting to Weird, I’m thinking McIlwraith will have to print blank pages.
When he was dismissed because of physical disabilities, many of the younger contributors to W.T. emoted all over the place, and waged a campaign to boycott the magazine. I did not join in this piece of juvenile idiocy. To expect a publisher to retain an editor incapable of coming to work was unrealism beyond the norm, even for youth! Finally, Wright’s successor, Dorothy McIlwraith, certainly was not responsible for his having been relieved of duty. As editor of Short Stories, her position was far more important than was the editorship of W.T. All she could gain was extra work, a bonus of headaches. Why penalize her by depriving her of desirable contributors?
None of these loyal nit-wits realize that the publisher scrapped Wright’s long established editorial policies, and told Dorothy what to do, and how to do it. As an employee, she had to obey orders, or, bail out. Anyone who ever knew the magazine business was aware that her leading magazine, Short Stories, was for a readership far more discriminating and mature than that of the W.T. fanciers. —Price, Book of the Dead: Friends of Yesteryear: Fictioneers & Others112
After Wright left WEIRD TALES (banished into outer space, is the way he wrote me about it), I happened to be in New York. I found out that he was living out at Jackson Heights, so I went out to see him, and was always glad I did, for he died only a few weeks later.
—Edmond Hamilton, “He That Hath Words,” Deeper Than You Think#2, Jul 1968, 12
Farnsworth Wright died on 12 June 1940. Dorothy McIlwraith took up the editorship with the May 1940 issue of Weird Tales, while simultaneously editing Short Stories, and would remain at the helm of both until Delaney sold the business in 1954. Assisting her was Lamont Buchanan, credited as the associate editor and referred to as the art editor
Having inherited a magazine that was bleeding readers and in the shadow of Wright’s departure, McIlwraith’s tenure in what turned out to be Weird Tales’ waning days is often overlooked or mischaracterized. Robert Weinberg’s comments echo those of many critics down the years:
As an editor, Ms. McIlwraith was a competent craftsman but was not on the same level as Farnsworth Wright. She was a veteran pulp editor and handled the magazine as best she could. Her biggest trouble was that she was not as familiar with weird fiction as her predecessor. Another problem was that her ideas on what Weird Talesshould be were somewhat narrower in scope than the beliefs Wright worked by. A publisher who did not let her run the magazine with as free a hand was no help. She did the best she could. (The Weird Tales Story43)
This is damning with faint praise; while Wright was a personable and intelligent editor, he was also notoriously indecisive, rejecting some of the best work of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and other writers; and Weird Tales under his watch was often characterized by wide variety as Wright chased the readers in the next pulp over with planetary science fiction by Edmond Hamilton & Otis Adelbert Kline, shudder pulps or detective pulps with Seabury Quinn, Robert E. Howard’s bloody historical adventures, hero pulps with Paul Ernst’s abominable Doctor Satan series—and that leaves out such ambitious botches as The Moon Terror and Other Stories (1927), Oriental Stories/The Magic Carpet Magazine (1930-1934), and Wright’s Shakespeare Library (1935), all of which ultimately failed and drew resources away from Weird Tales.
McIlwraith & Delaney faced a crowded market, and yet they were still paying the lowest rate of the fantasy pulps, 1 cent per word. Changes were made; the popular “Weird Tales Reprint” feature which Wright had instituted was dropped, as were serials, with the magazine promising “All Stories Complete” and “All Stories New—No Reprints.” McIlwraith convinced several of her most prominent authors at Short Stories to submit material for Weird Tales, including H. Bedford Jones, “The King of the Pulps.” While she couldn’t always afford to keep them, Weird Tales under McIlwraith’s direction continued to see the talents of some of the greatest artists and writers of the 40s and 50s: Ray Bradbury, Greye Le Spina, Robert Bloch, Margaret St. Clair, Manly Wade Wellman, Mary Elizabeth Counselman, Joseph Payne Brennan, Robert Barbour Johnson, Fritz Leiber, Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, and Kelly Freas, to name a few.
One valid criticism of McIlwraith’s tenure is general failure to engage with writers, artists, or fans on the same level as Wright. Under her editorship, the letter-column “The Eyrie” ceased to be a fan-forum, but a place where authors could expand on the background of their stories. In its place was started “The Weird Tales Club”—those who wrote in received a free membership card and had their names and addresses posted and encouraged to write to each other, but there was no apparent effort to generate an official fan club newsletter or real organization. Remembrances of McIlwraith are far fewer and less personal. Still, not all commentary on McIlwraith is negative:
But a magazine can’t survive by living off the past. It has to grow and change, like a living thing. Dorothy McIlwraith’s Weird tales did grow and change in several ways. there was a subtle difference in the whole attitude of the magazine. […] If anything, the new editor was more artistically minded than her predecessor. the glaringly trashy covers (imitative of the more successful sex and sadism pulps like Terror Tales and Horror Stories) and occasionally godawful formula story, which Wright seemed to regard as good business practices, disappeared. —Darrel Schweitzer, “What About Dorothy McIlwraith?” in WT50: A Tribute to Weird Tales95
Actually, I think she’s been far too neglected; I can’t dismiss anyone who published Bradbury, Sturgeon, Brown and other top talents. And I think she would have published more, had she been given the budget to compete with Unknown Worlds, F&SFand the other comparable markets. But that lousy 1 cent a word—and sometimes bimonthly publication—induced few writers to remain in WT once better rates were obtainable elsewhere.
While McIlwraith courted new and old authors, and was restricted in reprints for the first few years by policy, Lovecraft and the nascent Cthulhu Mythos were far from neglected—but there was a shortage of material. Lovecraft & Robert E. Howard were dead and with most of their Mythos-fiction already published in Weird Tales, Clark Ashton Smith largely alienated from fiction-writing (although he would contribute “The Enchantress of Sylaire” (Jul 1941), “The Master of the Crabs” (Mar 1948), and”Morthylla” by Clark Ashton Smith (May 1953)), and after Lovecraft’s death few of his immediate circle such as Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, or Robert Bloch seemed interested in continuing the shared mythology…but there was August Derleth.
We plan to use “The Sandwin Compact” in the next issue which will be made up—that is, November, published September first
Arkham House, founded by August Derleth & Howard Wandrei after the death of Lovecraft explicitly to publish his fiction, had done just that in 1939 with The Outsider & Others—and much of their catalog for the next ten years would include reprints of stories that had first appeared in Weird Tales, and Arkham House would take out full-page advertisements in the pulp for their books. Derleth, a tireless promoter of Lovecraft’s work and a frequent contributor to the magazine as a writer, began to develop a series of original Mythos fiction in the magazine, beginning with “The Sandwin Compact” (Jan 1941) and “Beyond the Threshold” (Sep 1941).
Derleth had also become the de facto literary executor of Lovecraft’s fiction, and as material was uncovered that had not previously appeared in Weird Tales, sold it to McIlwraith for Weird Tales; this included “The Mound” by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft (Jan 1941), The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (May & Jul 1941), “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (Jan 1942, with its classic illustration by Hannes Bok), and “Herbert West—Reanimator” by H. P. Lovecraft (May, July, Sep, Nov 1942; Sep, Nov 1943). The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was also uncovered from Lovecraft’s files during this period, but if Derleth offered it to McIlwraith, she turned it down—as she did sword & sorcery fiction like Fritz Leiber’s “Fahfrd & Grey Mouser” series, which appeared in Unknown.
Wartime paper rationing and lackluster sales still hit hard, however. Weird Tales dropped to 112 pages in 1943, and the ban on reprints was dropped; Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets would be reprinted (May 1944; Jan, Sep 1946; Jan, Mar 1947), as well as “The City” (Jul 1950), “The Horror at Red Hook” (Mar 1952), and “Hallowe’en in a Suburb” by H. P. Lovecraft (Sep 1952). Eager for a new attraction, McIlwraith also looked for a series character from a promising regular:
John Thunstone first appeared in 1943, after Wright retired as editor of Weird Tales and was succeeded by Dorothy McIlwraith. She and her associate, Lamont Buchanan, sat down with me for several careful discussions of how Thunstone might act and look, and what he might find to do.
Wellman’s occult detective was a success, and he would tip his hat to Lovecraft by including the Necronomicon in the Thunstone story “Letters of Cold Fire” (May 1944)—the same issue where the page count was reduced to 96 pages. The success of Lovecraft’s fiction and Derleth’s pastiches apparently encouraged McIlwraith and Derleth to mine this vein a little deeper:
I too have had a good many letters through the Arkham House clientele, if they respond as well to ‘The Dweller in Darkness’ I’ll no doubt have to do other stories in the same Lovecraftian vein—though I’ll wait for the green light from you before going ahead.”
McIlwraith published “The Trail of Cthulhu” (Mar 1944), “The Dweller in Darkness” (Nov 1944), and “The Watcher from the Sky” (Jul 1945). In the September, the world war ended with the use of atomic weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a science fiction weapon from the pulps becoming a terrible and deadly reality at last.
Derleth also took advantage of the new reprint feature by agenting weird stories from English authors like William Hope Hodgson that Arkham House was publishing. With Derleth’s regular contributions (sometimes published under the pseudonym Stephen Grendon), reprint material he was supplying, and his original Mythos fiction, something had to give…and did:
Sorry I forgot to mention The Lurker on[sic] the Threshold. I just don’t see how we could manage it for Weird. I don’t feel serials in an every other month magazine are good, anyway, and such long installments are out for the duration—[because] of the paper restrictions.
We have Grendon’s “Mr. George,” “The Hog” by Hodgson as well as several other novelttes from other sources […] and now you send along “Boyd”…Frankly, we like this Cthulhu the least of all our problem material, so it would seem logical to pass it up for Weird Tales —Dorothy McIlwraith to August Derleth, 30 July 1946, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos151
The Lurker at the Threshold was the first of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, although it was written almost entirely by Derleth, based around two brief fragments of Lovecraft; Arkham House later published the book the same year. McIlwraith also rejected the first submission of “The Testament of Claiborne Boyd,” part of the series that Derleth would collect as the stitch-up novel The Trail of Cthulhu. These decisions, as much as anything, show that McIlwraith was not simply cashing in on Lovecraft or the Mythos.
What did happen is that someone not connected with Derleth or Lovecraft tried their hand at pastiche. McIlwraith published C. Hall Thompson‘s “Spawn of the Green Abyss” (Nov 1946) and “The Will of Claude Asher” (Jul 1947), probably seeing them as no more than superior Lovecraft pastiches. Derleth, who felt Lovecraft’s work belonged to Arkham House, responded:
Yes, I know of C. Hall Thompson. He borrowed flagrantly from HPL’s work, and we stopped it by writing to his editors pointing out his invasion of prorpietary interests, though we would probably have given him the green signal to go ahead if he had submitted his work to us first. this he did not do; so it had to stop. —August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Aug 1964, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos267-268
No more pastiches were published by Thompson in Weird Tales. Whether she believed Derleth’s legal bluster or simply didn’t wish to alienate such a regular contributor and advertiser is unclear, but there are signs that Weird Tales was still in financial trouble. With the September 1947 issue, WT raised the price from 15 to 20 cents per issue, while retaining the reduced page count. Three more of Derleth’s tales appeared in the following years: “Something in Wood” (Mar 1948), “The Whippoorwills in the Hills” (Sep 1948), and the formerly-rejected “The Testament of Clairborne Boyd” (Mar 1949). With the next issue, May 1949, the price was increased again to 25 cents per issue. He would manage to land more stories: “Something From Out There” (Jan 1951), “The Keeper of the Key” (May 1951), “The Black Island” (Jan 1952), which featured the use of atomic weapons against Cthulhu.
Derleth was the most prominent Mythos writer in Weird Tales during McIlwraith’s editorship, but arguably the best one was Robert Bloch, who published the third in his triptych with Lovecraft, “The Shadow from the Steeple” (Sep 1950), and the highly acclaimed “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (May 1951). Among the rewrites, McIlwraith chose Robert E. Howard’s “The Black Stone” (Nov 1953).
In September 1953, adapting to market pressure, Weird Tales became a digest. McIlwraith apparently asked Derleth for more Mythos/Lovecraftian material, probably in a last-ditch effort to spur readership. He responded with “posthumous collaborations” that Derleth had written based on some fragment of Lovecraft’s text or ideas in his commonplace book:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready—
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more—or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
“The Survivor” appeared in the July 1954 issue, the last of the Derleth Mythos contributions. She wrote to him:
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Weird Tales folded with the September 1954 issue; both it and Short Stories were sold, and McIlwraith moved on. The various Derleth Mythos stories would see print elsewhere, and be collected and printed in book form. So too, Arkham House would collect and publish many stories and authors from McIlwraith’s period of editorship during the following decades.
We do not have any extensive memoirs from McIlwraith, and most of what she has written about weird fiction are restricted to editorial comments in “The Eyrie”—but in 1954 she weighed in on H. P. Lovecraft and Weird Tales:
Alathough the first all-science-fiction magazine did not appear until 1926, Weird Talesmagazine with its very first issue inaugerated a policy of devoting some portion of its conctents to science fiction and has continud that policy from March of 1923 to date. There was always some conflict between those readers who wanted more space devoted to straight weird material—i.e., fantasy—as opposed to those who would have preferred additional science fiction. The man who helped reocncile those two elements was H. P. Lovecraft, who in his own popular fashion blended weird and horror elements into a credible sceintific background to come up with a combination which satisfied all readers. Lovecraft influenced a great many of the younger writers […] —Dorothy McIlwraith, Editor’s Choice in Science Fiction185
She was not wrong, especially on the final point.
In evaluating Dorothy McIlwraith’s role with regard to Lovecraft and the Mythos, it is difficult not to consider the symbiotic role played by Derleth and Arkham House in the pulp’s final 14 years. While many of its stories were selected for reprint in anthologies long before this was the norm for science fiction, Weird Tales never issued a successful anthology of its own material—Arkham House largely fulfilled that role during McIlwraith’s time. By the same token, Weird Tales was exactly the market that Arkham House & August Derleth needed. Without McIlwraith, it seems unlikely that Derleth would have written Trail of Cthulhu, Mask of Cthulhu, or many of his posthumous collaborations—and whatever else may be thought of those works, as well as those of Bloch, Wellman, and Thompson, they helped keep the memory of Lovecraft alive for a new generation of readers.
But in this, Dorothy McIlwraith was not alone…
The Munsey Company practically invented the pulp magazine, with highly successful titles like Argosy going back to the turn of the century. With this large stock of stories, in 1939 they launched Famous Fantastic Mysteries primarily as a title to reprint them. The editor selected was Mary Gnaedinger, who also edited Fantastic Novels (1940-1941) and A. Merritt’s Fantasy Magazine (1949-1950).
Gnaedinger and McIlwraith were technically rivals, but since Weird Tales initially offered no reprints and Famous Fantastic Mysteries no original material, they seemed at least at first more complementary than anything—at least to contemporary eyes. FFM, however, paid better, so Gnaedinger was able to snatch away Virgil Finlay, one of the finest artists working in the pulps. She was also much more attentive to the growing science fiction and fantasy fandom, and catered the content of the magazine to the stories they wanted to read, republishing many now-classic works by Robert W. Chambers, A. Merritt, Arthur Machen, Ray Cummings…and even Weird Tales regulars.
Lovecraft however was not initially on the menu; though Gnaedinger managed to reprint “The Colour Out of Space” (Oct 1941), supplemented with the poem “For H. P. Lovecraft” by Robert A. Lowndes. In 1943, Munsey sold Famous Fantastic Mysteries to All-Fiction Field, who retained Gnaedinger as editor and loosened her restrictions, allowing her to publish more original material. (Sisters of Tomorrow293) Gnaedinger took advantage of this by making arrangements with Arkham House to reprint some of Lovecraft’s fiction, with whom she had some dealings:
The Lurker on[sic] the Thresholdis an excellent fantastic story, but I regret to say that we have decided it is too specialized for the ordinary readers who undoubtedly form a large cross-section of our public. A great part of the story is written for the initiated fantasy fan, and cutting would spoil it. Not that I think you would want to see it cut. —Mary Gnaedinger to Derleth, 6 Feb 1945, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos191
Ironically, this was the same general rejection that McIlwraith had given Derleth when he pitched the idea of serializing The Lurker at the Threshold in Weird Tales. However, Gnaedinger was open to reprinting more works, and so in due course Famous Fantastic Mysteries hosted “The Outsider” (Jun 1950), “The Music of Erich Zann” (Mar 1951), and “Pickman’s Model” (Dec 1951), all “Published by permission of Arkham House.”
Fan-scholars and poets like Virginia “Nanek” Anderson also made their appearance in FFM. Two pieces in particular stand out: “Masters of Fantasy: Howard Phillips Lovecraft – The Outsider” (Aug 1947) and “Masters of Fantasy: Arthur Machen: Inspirator of Lovecraft” (Dec 1948); while credited as to Neil Austin, it has been suggested these pieces were actually written by arch-fan Forrest J. Ackermann.
There is a little mystery to the Famous Fantastic Mystery reprints, with the main one being: Why FFM? In 1941, Weird Tales wasn’t publishing reprints, so the reprint of “The Colour Out of Space” isn’t exactly cutting into their market; but in the 1950s it seems unusual that Derleth would offer reprints to FFM when Weird Tales was an open market—unless either McIlwraith had already turned him down, or Gnaedinger offered more money. Either seems a likely possibility, but the details to the deal have not come to light.
Near the end of its run, Gnaedinger also published a few works by Robert E. Howard with connections to the Mythos, notably “Skull-Face” (Dec 1952)—whose villain Kathulos was once feverishly debated to have a connection to Cthulhu by the fans of Weird Tales—and “Worms of the Earth” (Jun 1953), which appeared in the final issue.
Famous Fantastic Mysteries folded the year before Weird Tales; while it had a good 14-year run, the pulp market was largely collapsing in on itself, competing both with comic books and the burgeoning paperback, which offered another cheap way to reprint fiction. Mary Gnaedinger continued to keep in close touch with fans, and while she may have published little original Mythos fiction, she was a sensitive barometer to what the fans wanted—and strove to give it to them. In the early 1950s, that was more Lovecraft.
Cele Goldsmith Lalli
Science fiction magazines weathered the collapse of the pulps a little better than most, and writers that had cut their teeth at Weird Tales and Unknown would go on to find success in the 60s with The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Galaxy Science Fiction, and Analog Science Fiction and Fact (which evolved from Astounding). It was in this Cold War/Space Race atmosphere that Cele Goldsmith (later Cele Goldsmith Lalli) became editor of both Amazing Stories and its companion Fantastic from 1958-1965, when the magazines were sold.
Cele Goldsmith combined the approaches of both McIlwraith and Gnaedinger: she listened to the fans, and she was willing to give them both original fiction and classic reprints. In the May 1960 issue of Fantastic she republished “The Challenge From Beyond” (at least Lovecraft’s portion of it), but paired it with fan-scholar Sam Moskowitz’ essay “A Study in Horror: The Eerie Life of H. P. Lovecraft.” Two years later, she published Derleth’s posthumous collaboration “The Shadow out of Space” (Dec 1962), which had appeared a few years earlier in the Arkham House volume The Survivor and Others (1957), containing Derleth’s posthumous collaborations from Weird Tales.
Finally, in Goldsmith published two new Mythos stories, and from an author that wasn’t part of the Arkham House stable—although if Derleth ever caused a stink about it like C. Hall Thompson, it has never come to light. The stories were “The Dunstable Horror” (Apr 1964) and “The Crib of Hell” (May 1965), both by “Arthur Pendragon”—thought to possibly be the pen-name of well-known Fantastic contributor Arthur Porges. While it was still rare for Mythos fiction to be published outside the aegis of Arkham House, Derleth could not police every magazine forever.
What these three women accomplished, from 1939-1965, was essentially to help keep the Mythos alive in the pulps. Because of the controlling nature that Arkham House had on Lovecraft’s material, and Derleth’s production of additional Mythos material, a sizable amount of what they published came from Derleth or went through him—but not all of it. These editors held authority over their own magazines, and while they might pay Derleth for a story, what they published was ultimately their own decision. What we get, in their magazines, are the inklings of original Mythos material outside of what August Derleth approved to be printed, and this in professional magazines, not just the fanzines.
Maybe that is a small thing, in the great scheme of the universe. None of these editors appear to have been particular devotees of Lovecraft or the Mythos…but neither were they ignorant of it. They knew their business, and Lovecraft and the writers he inspired was a part of that.
The next January gossips were mildly interested in the fact that “Lavinny’s black brat” had commenced to talk, and at the age of only eleven months.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror”
In many ways a spiritual precursor to “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle and “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly Tanzer, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” is one of Stanley C. Sargent’s most reprinted stories—and one of his most radical. It is a story which emerged from many of the ideas of Lovecraft scholarship at the time of its writing: Donald Burleson’s characterization of the Whateley twins fulfilling Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth, as detailed in Disturbing The Universe (1990); the tracing of autobiographical elements from Lovecraft’s life in “The Dunwich Horror” which Sargent would later expand on in the essay “Howard Phillips Whateley, An Observation” (1999, rev. 2002).
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” is a deliberate subversion of Lovecraft’s original narrative, a sort of critical reading re-cast as fiction, a different point of view where the real antagonist of the original story is not Wilbur Whateley. It is the kind of story that reflects the reality of biographical research, where scholars have to sift through different anecdotes and memoirs, trying to reconcile contradictory accounts and arrive at the truth—and the same game can be played by fans of the Mythos, as they attempt to reconcile different stories written by different authors, to arrive at some coherent understanding of the shared artificial mythology.
Part of the story is thus a very deliberate attempt to confirm certain long-held fan-theories, even while recasting the traditional Lovecraftian narrative. For example:
“Did Wilbur explain how Lavinia had a child by this non-material being?” Jeffrey asked.
Gavin chuckled. “I’d of thought you boys would be smart enough to figure that one out for yourselves! Seems self-evident to me that Wizard Whateley allowed himself to be possessed for an incestuous encounter with his daughter. You’ve read Armitage’s account, don’t you recall that Curtis Whateley described the giant face on top of the monster as being the unmistable likeness to Wizard Whateley?
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft54
This was probably the inspiration for the scene regarding the conception of the Whateley twins in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows’ graphic novel Providence.
While writers like Sargent & LaValle have played free with the interpretation of events and characters in Lovecraft’s stories, they have still largely bound themselves to the general sequence of those events and their outcomes—so in “The Black Brat of Dunwich” Lavinia Whateley still gets shut out from her pagan celebrations on Sentinel Hill, and still comes to the same end, just as in “The Dunwich Horror.” The difference in Sargent’s recension is the more sympathetic take on her as a character, showing her as more simple-minded than Lovecraft had and with Wilbur showing real affection for his mother, and going into more detail about her inevitable death.
Inadvertently, this treatment of Lavinia Whateley as a lonely, uneducated woman who is the mere pawn of the men in her life gives her even less agency as a character, but that is a common issue with many re-tellings of “The Dunwich Horror.” Lovecraft’s narrative doesn’t provide much of a role for Lavinia beyond mother and victim, and any narrative that sticks close to the events of that story will have trouble expanding her story much beyond that. The death of Lavinia becomes not an ominous mystery, but a tragedy unfolding.
One open question left by the story involves a particular scene which blurs the line between homosocial and homosexual. The narrator is aware that Wilbur Whateley is self-conscious of his appearance, and:
“I tried to get him over it, show him it didn’t matter to me. I even kept talking to him on a couple occasions to keep him in the room while I took a bath, figuring he’d eventually loosen up, seeing as how I was no Adonis myself, but it didn’t work. He just sat there staring at me all over, like he was studying me as an example of how folks are supposed to look. I just wanted him to accept himself for who he was and stop worrying about what anyone else thought.” He stared directly at James. “You’d best get that disgusted look off your face damn quick, young man, or I’m done talking.”
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Black Brat of Dunwich” in The Taint of Lovecraft 50
Keeping in mind that while appearing full-grown, Wilbur Whateley was only about six years old in this scene, which makes this feel more than a little like indecent exposure, and recalls some of the problematic issues with “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff. The whole tone of Sargent’s appeal likely echoes strongly with those who have had difficulties coming to grips with either their sexuality or body image, with it being remembered that Stanley C. Sargent put forth one of the most elegant arguments for why Lovecraft may have been a closeted homosexual in an interview with Peter A. Worthy (1998). Wilbur, like Lovecraft, is presented in this story as an outsider.
It is perhaps appropriate then that Sargent dedicated this story to his friend Wilum H. Pugmire, a Mythos author who also identified with the Outsider—but had embraced that identity and relished it.
“The Black Brat of Dunwich” was first published in the Esoteric Order of Dagon amateur press association mailing #97 and Cthulhu Codex #10 (1997); it has subsequently been reprinted many times, in The Ancient Track (Oct 1998), The Taint of Lovecraft (2002), The Black Book #2 (2002), Tales Out of Dunwich (2005), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), and A Mountain Walked (2014).