Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, 1999)

Mystery of the Necronomicon (黒の断章, Kuro no Danshō) is a four-episode hentai (sexually explicit, adult-oriented) Original Video Animation (OAV) produced in Japan and released in 1999 and 2000 on DVD and laserdisc; it was dubbed and released into English-speaking markets in 2007 on VHS and DVD, with periodic re-releases on DVD since then, most recently the all-in-one 2014 DVD from Critical Mass.

It is difficult to put Mystery of the Necronomicon into its proper context because most of that context has never been translated into English. In 1995 the first of a computer game series “Suzusaki Detective Office File” (涼崎探偵事務所ファイル) was released by Avocado Powers (アボガドパワーズ, often Anglicized phonetically as “Abogado Powers”) for the PC-9800 personal computers; it was ported to the Sega Saturn in 1997, and to Windows in 2004. The game was an adult-oriented mystery/horror, and spawned a sequel in 1996; a third game was planned, but never came out due to financial difficulties at the company. Subsidiary materials include a 1997 strategy guide to the Sega Saturn game, which was praised for its art.

SegaSaturn

Mystery of the Necronomicon is essentially the film version of the 1995 computer game. This wasn’t necessarily weird in the late ’90s; one of the more successful examples English audiences might be familiar with is Street Fighter II: The Animated Movie (1994, dubbed English version released in 1995), and Japan had already released a 1994 computer game Necronomicon (ネクロノミコン) based on Lovecraft’s work. As the game itself has never been officially translated and released in English markets, it’s difficult to say how accurately the  4-episode OVA represents the plot and characterization. Both game and OVA appear to be trying the tricky job of producing an original Cthulhu Mythos horror/mystery with characters that are sexual beings—and that sexuality isn’t limited to consensual heterosexual relations without paraphilia; the OVA  contains graphic scenes of consensual female homosexuality, BDSM, and urophilia as well.

The explicit sexual content may be why the game producers partnered with production company Discovery, a Japanese company that had specialized in adult animation such as the slightly infamous Night Shift Nurses series. While there’s no scuttlebutt on the behind-the-scenes involved with bringing Mystery of the Necronomicon to English audiences, the North American distributor Anime 18 had also distributed Night Shift Nurses and other titles from Discovery, so it seems likely that this was a case of something in Discovery’s back-catalog of titles that they thought would appeal to the North American market…how well that worked out, it’s hard to say, but there must have been at least some commercial interest for the DVD to get multiple English releases.

MotN-VHS

It’s possible the “Book of the Dead” subtitle on some of the English releases drew some inspiration from Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993), an American/French/Japanese co-production, but it’s telling that the box art emphasized “From the director of Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend,” one of the famous tentacle erotica anime that derive from the work of Maeda Toshio (前田俊夫). The distributors were obviously trying to capitalize as much as possible on the explicit pornographic nature of Mystery of the Necronomicon—this was a product being marketed to a specific crowd—which bears a little bit of inquiry.

There is a cost involved in translating every work. For those first writers who translated H. P. Lovecraft into Japanese after World War II, it was the cost of the translator’s time and expertise, then on top of that the normal publishing costs; the same applies for Japanese literature translated into English. For especially art-heavy works like the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), there are special considerations to make sure that the art is properly reproduced, and there are potential issues of censorship to deal with, but it’s still mostly an issue of translation costs. With an anime, there are added costs: for a dub, the script has to be translated, voice actors contracted, performances recorded, then new voice tracks have to be mastered and synchronized with the videoso it’s not a small process, there’s layers of work to be done, and that’s assuming that censorship issues aren’t involved. Japanese pornographic works, by statute, blur or hide genitalia and often cannot depict pubic hair and may involve characters under the legal age of consent in other countries—such issues may or may not be resolved as part of the translation process, and there’s an added cost involved with removing censoring, or changing the script so a character is at least 18 years old if it’s going to be sold on the North American market.

Because of this cost, only a fraction of the vast amount of media that Japan produces ever reaches English-language markets, and that fraction of stuff tends to get skewed toward specific markets where it is believed (or at least hoped) that it will sell. Sometimes this leads to big successes like the Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball, and One Piece series, or the Super Sentai series which were translated into Power Rangers—and sometimes this leads to abysmal flops, stuff that either for poor translation or distribution or whatever other reason fails to find its audience and sinks out of sight. Because of the cost involved, this means that companies tend to focus on those franchises and products which do sell, and if a given series is successful, they’ll try to bring over another similar work to sell to the same market.

Which is a long way to say: Mystery of the Necronomicon was not translated into English because there was a hardcore market of Japanese Cthulhu Mythos fans that were frothing at the bit to get their hands on any and all Japanese media related to Lovecraft’s creations. Instead, it looks a lot like Mystery of the Necronomicon was translated to fill a niche for sexually explicit anime for a market that was hungry for hentai. There is a bit of irony to the fact that with the rise of the internet, so many people have associated the tentacle erotica of hentai works by Maeda Toshio & the like with the relatively tentacle-heavy Cthulhu Mythos fiction of the 1990s and early 2000s, but so little of the stuff actually coming out of Japan in translation actually dealt with that.

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While there is sexually explicit content to Mystery of the Necronomicon, most of the four episodes are taken up with the eponymous mystery that the detectives are there to solveand anyone looking for gonzo masturbation material, porn without plot, might be surprised that it’s a fairly well-plotted story (albeit one with plenty of graphic sex scenes), with solid voice acting and some good visuals. The soundtrack and animation are workable; neither the best nor the worst of Japanese animation from the period, but many of the horror scenes are fairly effective. There are little Easter eggs for Mythos aficionados as well, such as the character Clark Ashton, and the final mystery takes a very interesting turn that showcases how well-versed the writers were in their Lovecraftian lore.

Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator” takes place in Arkham and at Miskatonic University, but largely predates the establishment of Lovecraft’s Mythos and doesn’t involve his eldritch entities or terrible tomes. Like “The Picture in the House,” it is only tangentially connected to the Mythos at large by virtue of being set in Lovecraft country. Some later media have tried to work around this by making the source of West’s reagent derived from studies of the Necronomiconthis was a plot point in many of Dynamite’s Reanimator comics, and Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Providenceand not to spoil things too much, in Mystery of the Necronomicon it is revealed that West has a connection with the book tooalthough as with many Japanese Mythos works, the physical appearance of the Necronomicon is inspired more strongly by the Necronomicon Ex Mortis from the Evil Dead films, as discussed in “Night Voices, Night Journeys” (2005) by Inoue Masahiko (井上雅彦).

Mystery of the Necronomicon is ultimately a good example of how Lovecraftian influence spreads outside of the sphere of English-language media, only to come back in somewhat weird and unusual form. The surprising thing isn’t that Lovecraftian erotica exists, or exists in Japanese, but that there was sufficient audience for something like that in the English-speaking world that people spent the time and effort to translate it back into English. It isn’t exactly Lovecraft seen “through a glass darkly”because there is nothing imperfect or distorted about the adaptation; it is simply something that is both oddly familiar and different from what English-speaking audiences have seen before.


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

“Shoggoth Makes Three” (2003) by Jean Ann Donnel

A house in the suburbs or an apartment in the city would be assigned him, and he would be initiated into one of the large affection-groups, including many noblewomen of the most extreme and art-enhanced beauty, which in latter-day K’n-yan took the place of family units.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”

Most readers don’t normally associate H. P. Lovecraft with polyamory. Then as now, monogamy was the prevailing paradigm among the bulk of the population, and Lovecraft’s romances in his fictions are almost always explicitly monogamous in nature; there are a few lover’s triangles in stories like “The Man of Stone” with Hazel Heald and “Medusa’s Coil” with Zealia Bishop, but there are no polycules in Lovecraft country outside of “The Mound.”

There was nothing new with the idea of polyamory during Lovecraft’s lifetime. His friend James F. Morton was part of a “free love” group at one point, and his chapbooks were advertised in The Public in 1916, alongside advertisements like this:

Screenshot 2021-02-23 at 9.42.15 PM

After Lovecraft’s death, polyamory became more common. “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977) by Richard Lupoff famously opens with a polyamorous threesome…but for the most part, monogamy remains the overwhelming romantic schema of Mythos fiction, both serious and jocular, erotic and non-erotic. Indeed, while the attitudes regarding sex have become much more progressive and expressive in Mythos fiction, romances—particularly marriage—often deal with existing attitudes and problems, with a Mythos twist. This can be seen in works like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader (marriage-by-contract, the stresses of pregnancy on a marriage), “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales (patriarchal attitudes towards marriage, spousal abuse), Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (marriage under duress, consanguineous marriage), etc. Infidelity remains a relatively rare theme, as well as marriage counseling. The bulk of marital issues in the expanded Cthulhu Mythos appear to be solved only be the death of one or both partners.

Which is part of what makes Jean Ann Donnel’s “Shoggoth Makes Three” so special.

“Fi Fi is your lover’s name as well?” she inquired.

Cantraip looked at her startled. Could it be?

“You’re not a lesbian, are you Ms. Peaches?” the moderator asked, arching an eyebrow. “That would explain your being in a dysfunctional relationship group,” he stated.

Ms. Peaches stared at him steadily with contempt in her eyes. “I’m quite straight. Fi Fi’s not exactly a woman and definitely has male members,” she commented.
—Jean Ann Donnel, “Shoggoth Makes Three” in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003), vol. 2, no. 16, 20

Donnel is playing the situation for laughs; the idea of a polycule with a polymorphous shoggoth in the middle is almost a one-note joke. Yet for all that the idea is being played for transgressive comedy, it does include several interesting developments in Mythos fiction which other authors would also explore—and maybe a few that haven’t been explored much at all.

It is hard to pinpoint where exactly the idea of a shoggoth (or other Mythos entity) with multiple genitalia serving as a bridge between heterosexuality to a broader range of sexual experiences originated. Certainly there was some fanfiction where ardent weird fiction fans were imagining the possibilities; Rick McCollum illustrated one possibility for a fanzine in 1980:

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One might also add Robert M. Price’s story “A Thousand Young” (1989), where a libertine encounters:

For there, revealed by the glare of the lights, was no solid heap of swaying orgiasts, but rather chains of bodies spread over the pulsing and gelatinous surface of a tentacled, amoeboid horror, the revelers grotesquely arrayed like suckling whelps as the thing fed greedily on their sexual vitality through the questing pseudopodic phaluses, teats, and vulvas it sent forth!
—Robert M. Price, “A Thousand Young” in The Shub-Niggurath Cycle (1994) 94

The idea, both artistic and literary, of a polymorphous Mythos entity that can produce genitalia at will is still very much part of the creative erotic lexicon of the Mythos, as can be clearly seen in many depictions of the shoggoth in, for example, fan-works related to Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス). Arguably there were prototypical works in the Mythos anticipating this, such as the strange plants to which parts of human men and women were grafted in Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Garden of Adompha.”

What these stories generally lack is the emotional connection. For many, the ability of a shoggoth to assume multiple genitalia, male and female, is purely a matter of sexual possibilities. Jean Ann Donnel’s Ms. Peaches doesn’t feel it’s homosexual to be with a shoggoth, no matter how many vulvas it may have at the moment; but her interest in Fi Fi, like Cantraip’s, is more than just sexual. There’s a romantic bond, above and beyond just the sexual one…and it’s a bond that Ms. Peaches and Cantraip learn to share with each other as well as Fi Fi.

Fi Fi had parts entwined, and in, both of them and covering them protectively. They slept in Fi Fi and Fi Fi in them, as well as in one another. They were not going back to the dysfunctional relationship group. The three of them felt their relationship was absolutely perfect just as it was.
—Jean Ann Donnel, “Shoggoth Makes Three” in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003), vol. 2, no. 16, 21

“Shoggoth Makes Three” has a happy ending…and, for what the story is, a short-short of only two pages, played for laughs, that’s workable. However, there is the potential in that setup for much more substantial and powerful stories that explore this kind of theme, of humans finding a meaningful relationship with an eldritch entity that extends beyond just sex, which eschews the limitations of gender.

Such a story is “Ink” by Bernie Mozjes in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian EroticaWhile Mozjes doesn’t cover quite the same ground as Donnel (no therapy), “Ink” is played more seriously; the conclusion is less foregone, and the emotions being addressed have more kick. Donnel takes it for granted that the shoggoth, because of their multiple genitalia, is able to bridge the gap between men and women mostly on a sexual basis. Mozjes is more focused on what else might attract someone to enter into a polyamorous relationship with an eldritch entity—and why the polymorphic entity itself might enter into such a relationship.

Which is rare ground. It’s often a strange case for Mythos fiction, particularly Lovecraftian erotica, that regardless of how fantastic the physical forms and acts of copulation turn out to be, the actual basic mechanics tend to default to heteronormative values of sex and relationships. Whether that’s a collective failure of the imagination or catering to what the audience wants, who can tell? Yet it doesn’t seem that many people have written of, say, polygamous marriages in Innsmouth. For everyone that thinks every possibility for Mythos fiction has been explore…reconsider your preconceptions. There’s a lot stranger territory out there.

“Shoggoth Makes Three” by Jean Ann Donnel was first published in Cthulhu Sex Magazine (2003) vol. 2, no. 16. It has not been republished. Donnel had written some short-short fiction on the alt.cthulhu.sex Usenet group, and also published “Have You Found Him” in Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004).


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

“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” (2015) by Dixie Pinoit

I cannot bring myself to speak of it, so of course I must. It is with terror and that utmost thrill of lust-filled despair that I write of my wedding night, that night that wouldst,—for any average couple, be filled with so much innocent discovery, so much joy in the uncovering of what a lifetime of connubial bliss is meant to be.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 144

The soundtrack to this review is “Move Your Dead Bones” (2003) by Dr. Reanimator (Jordi Cubino).

Parody is one of the great underappreciated modes of Lovecraftian erotica. All of the factors that make it so easy to pastiche Lovecraft’s fiction—the emphasis on surface features of purple prose and melodrama, the tendency to riff off of existing elements of the mythology, and the emphasis on taboo topics—are easy to twist into parody, usually by exaggerating the already over-exaggerated until the emotional language becomes just absurd. Once you cross the line from serious pastiche into parody, adding sex is pretty natural, given how many parallels there are. “Forbidden literature,” for example, can apply equally well to pornography as it can to eldritch tomes like the Necronomicon:

Doris didn’t like the Necronomicon, although she considered herself an emancipated and free-thinking young woman. There was something sinister, or to be downright honest about it, perverted about that book—and not in a nice, exciting way, but in a sick and frightening way. All those strange illustrations, always with five-sided borders just like the Pentagon in Washington, but with those people inside doing all those freaky sex acts with those other creatures that weren’t people at all.
—Robert Shea & Robert Anton Wilson, The Eye in the Pyramid (1975), 93

“Herbert West—Reanimator!” has for whatever reason been an unusually prolific target for parody and pastiche, both erotic and otherwise, as shown by such diverse works as “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Herbert West in Love” (2012) by Molly TanzerRe-Animator (1985) with its infamous head-giving-head scene and its various sequels, and the hardcore adult film Re-Penetrator (2004, Burning Angel). So Dixie Pinoit in “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” is in good company.

As it happens, Pinoit blends a few details between Lovecraft’s original opus and the 1985 film: where Jeffrey Combs (the actor for Herbert West) is brunet, Lovecraft had West as blond in the original novella, and Pinoit has West as a blond; where Lovecraft had West’s partner as a nameless protagonist, the 1985 film gives him the name Dan Cain, so Pinoit uses Dan Cain as the name for West’s assistant. It is the kind of detail that rewards the detail-oriented Mythos enthusiast, though easy to miss when the narrative lens turns to some of the other action:

Noticing that one of Elena’s awe-inspiring breasts had somehow freed itself from its restraints, I stroked it plaintively before restoring it to what could indeed become its burial shroud unless the doctor was simply premature in his determination of death.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 145

Chekov’s corpse. There is something wonderfully straightforward about Reanimator media, in that all you really need is a body at or rapidly cooling toward room temperature for the fun to start, and there’s a great deal of fun to be had in various scenarios about how the corpse came to be and what happens when it is eventually reanimated. A great deal of Reanimator adaptations can riff on this concept pretty much nonstop, but what makes it really work is not the practice of revivifying the dead—any Frankenstein-derived or zombie story can give you the thrill of the dead coming back to life—it’s Herbert West himself, with all of his quirks and monomania, which drives the plot. A good Reanimator story is about the Reanimator as much as the reanimated.

My beloved’s corpse now stripped of the ivory lace and silk wedding dress that had once adorned her curvaceous form, stripped bare under the yellow lights to make it easier for Dr. West to inject things into her delicious upper arms while her ample breasts and small tuft of pubic hair glistened and juggled from the force of his ministrations.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 148

Readers that think they know where this is going are still in for a surprise or two; the protagonist surely was. Pinoit by this point plays a little fast and loose with the “rules” of reanimation—murderous bloodlust is out, and certain other types of lust are very much in—but the subversion of expectations, especially when transgressive and exaggerated for comedic effect, are common techniques in all parody.

Yet for all the surprises, one of the most notable is that Pinoit is obviously a fan as much as a pornographer. The nameless Lovecraftian protagonist is actually a Lovecraftian protagonist, inspired by the events of Lovecraft’s life and so the characterization—a parody of Lovecraft’s style—is really an affectionate tribute to the Old Gent himself.

Sales plummeted until the hat shop could no longer support us.

Eventually she moved away to start over. A larger town, where her curious predilections were less likely to be remarked upon amongst a larger populous, and would perhaps even be welcomed by an adventurous few.

I did not go with her.
—Dixie Pinoit, “Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” in Lovecraft After Dark 154

Lovecraft as the star of an erotic story might seem odd, or even off-putting at first glance, but Pinoit is far from the only one to do it; Edward Lee has used Lovecraft (or a character based on him) in several of his “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels and novellas, especially Pages Torn from a Travel Journal (2013) and Trolley No. 1852 (2010). These depictions are often exaggerated for humor as much or more than erotic value, but there is a real amount of effort put into some of these stories to embed aspect of Lovecraft’s life, style, fiction, and just plain character into the fictionalization. These are homages—and speak as much to how Lovecraft himself has become a part of his own artificial mythology.

Considering how much interest has been devoted to Lovecraft’s sex life after his death by fans and scholars alike, this aspect of his character—his sexuality and sexual experiences, real or imagined—present what might be one of the more ultimate taboos to transgress. If you as a reader are at all squicked out at the thought of H. P. Lovecraft having sex, then the author has succeeded at their goal. If you’re excited at the idea of your literary idol getting laid, then the author has also succeeded! The whole point of using a character that is such an obvious version of Lovecraft is to evoke some visceral or emotional reaction from the reader. This effect can only be achieved because of the degree of posthumous fame that Lovecraft has achieved.

While there are few people that might write the Lovecraftian equivalent to Rachel Bloom’s “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” (2010), the same basic idea has found expression in the Mythos. H. P. Lovecraft may be dead, but as a fictional character he can do things he never did in life; he has been in many ways reanimated himself—and the interest is not necessarily in what the literary corpse of Lovecraft does, but in why the reanimator has brought them back, and how. In many cases, like this one, it is little more than an in-joke—a nod and a wink to the dedicated Lovecraftian that found themselves coming to the end of this erotic tale—but it is also a tribute to the lasting appeal of H. P. Lovecraft as a character, that he can be inserted into a story such and expect to be recognized, without his name ever being given.

“Herbert West and the Mammaries of Madness” appeared in the erotic Cthulhu Mythos anthology Lovecraft after Dark (2015).


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

The Curse of Yig (1953) by Zealia Bishop

After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937, his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (founders of Arkham House), and R. H. Barlow (Lovecraft’s literary executor) began a concerted effort to get his fiction, poetry, and letters into print. This process took decades, publication being relatively slow and expensive, and the audience being mostly restricted to hardcore fans. Among all the legendary Arkham House publications, Zealia Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (1953) stands out as the first Mythos collection attributed to a woman—and would remain the sole such book for some decades. The contents are fairly succinct:

Like many books, The Curse of Yig didn’t just happen. At the time of Lovecraft’s death, only “The Curse of Yig” (1929) was published; both “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil” had been rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and apparently failed to find a home elsewhere. One of the first jobs that Derleth & co. faced was finding out what revision-work and collaborations that Lovecraft had actually done and obtaining manuscripts and permission to publish them.

H. P. wrote stories for a half dozen, some of which I can prove by documents. Bloch (Don’t quote me—there are amenities to be preserved), Heald, Reed, Lumley, had outright jobs done, Rimel & others his enormous tinkering resulting in a wholly re-written ms. These things are—some of them worth collecting–but not in his own books. He said many times he would not permit a collaboration in his collected stories, so certainly he’d resent these things. We’re going to have a hamper full as it is.

Mrs. Reed had him do 3 stories,

  1928 – YIG – pub. – written outright for her
*1929 – THE MOUND – novelette – ditto
*      ”  – Medusa’s Coil – embodying a notion of hers, but all HPL nonetheless

* I have only the ms. of these

[…] Perhaps the works he ghosted could be called “collaborations” without scaring off the ghostees, & made another book. There’s years of work to be sorted & printed.
R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 31 Mar n.d. [1937], MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth managed to get in contact with Zealia Bishop in 1937, and they discussed Lovecraft’s letters and revisions. In an early letter, Zealia promised:

I shall prepare an article or—data—on what I think may be of general interest in regard to Howard’s revision work—and send you within the next week—but shall await your reply and if I have anything which you can use I shall compile it for you—and do all in my power to assist you in every way.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 8 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The article didn’t come. What did happen is that Derleth apparently edited these stories and then apparently acted as Bishop’s agent to sell them to Weird Tales. The timeline on how exactly this happened is a little unclear, but over a year later in the January 1939 issue of Weird TalesDerleth’s version of “Medusa’s Coil” was published. Fan response was positive, and ‘The Eyrie’ for March 1939 reveals it was voted the second-favorite story in the issue. The success of “Medusa’s Coil” might explain why Bishop’s “The Curse of Yig” was included as a “Classic Reprint” in the April 1939 issue of Weird Talesand it was also positively received in “The Eyrie.” “The Mound” did not see print until the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, possibly due to its length. None of these stories were presented with any mention of Lovecraft’s authorship in Weird Tales.

Following Barlow’s suggestion, Arkham House initially focused on publishing H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction on its own: The Outsider and Others (1939) and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943) collects nearly all of his fiction. The latter book, however, also included some of his “collaborations,” including “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”—this would have been the first time Lovecraft’s hand in Zealia Bishop’s stories was publicly acknowledged. “Medusa’s Coil” was republished in Marginalia (1944), alongside other revisions and collaborations; these Arkham House texts both used Derleth’s edited versions of “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil,” rather than the original Lovecraft/Bishop version.

Was it your intention to make them appear as his stories?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 28 Jan 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Zealia Bishop’s letters with Derleth in the mid-to-late 1940s defend her authorship of the three weird stories, other evidence of Lovecraft writing them from synopses notwithstanding. She also continued to promise him an article on her relationship with Lovecraft:

I hope you won’t find too many things wrong with the Lovecraft article. If that passes, then I shall not worry about the others, for he is not an altogether easy subject about whom one can write, yet a very interesting one.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House was slowing down publication in the late 1940s and early 50s. Derleth had repeatedly cited low sales, with books selling out only very slowly despite the relatively small print runs. By the 1950s most of the weird fiction pulps had folded, and even the venerable Weird Tales was on its last few years of existence. So it is somewhat surprising that around 1952, Zealia’s letters start to discuss a print collection of her fiction…and she was also working on not just the long-promised article on Lovecraft, but another on Derleth himself:

You’re wrong, fellow, I haven’t fallen down on the job about the articles on you and H. P. L. I finished them two years ago, but kept rewriting them, unable to throw off that damnable self-consciousness instilled in me by Lovecraft. Now, however, I’ve developed more positiveness and will send them to you for approval and corrections where you feel necessary.

I plan to use both of them in the story collection but if, after reading them, you wish to suggest a market, it might be well to have them previously published.

After you read them and also see the assembled collection, how about writing a “Foreword”? You know I worked and studied hard before I began studying under Lovecraft and Long. Considering that it was during the darkest years of the depression, I paid them both well for their instructions, criticism and any revision. My record at Columbia University will bear out my years of studying and ambition. What shall I do about reprints of stories published in magazines now out of print? […]

What about the reprinting of stories once published in stories now out of business or publications discontinued by a publisher tho’ still in business? What of those published in Confessions?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 12 Aug 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth’s reaction to this had to be a bit mixed. The time and place for Zealia’s memoir of Lovecraft would ideally have been earlier—in Marginalia maybe, or The Arkham Sampler (1948-1949)—and it didn’t seem that Zealia Bishop had anything genuinely weird to offer besides the three Lovecraft revisions, and those had already been published and re-published. “The Curse of Yig” in particular had been published twice in Weird Tales, three times in hardcover, and most recently in the paperback Avon’s Fantasy Reader No. 14 (1950).

At last here is the article. I hope that it does not fall far short of my opinion of you and that you will see some improvement in my writing. Feel free to augment and delete as you see fit. […] At the time I began the article on you I started one on Lovecraft this should be finished for your approval before I get there—you understand I will need photographs for both? […] In the event my short stories are published as a collection I plan to include both articles. Does that meet with your approval? If only the weird are selected for one book then both articles—DERLETH-LOVECRAFT—would be most appropos—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Oct 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Will have some time to redo my DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. If they meet with your approval do you have a market for them or will you suggest one to me, though later they will go in the book with the weird short? Why don’t you quote me a price for publication (by ARKHAM HOUSE) for such a volume? I would like to have such a book done well, such as ARKHAM HOUSE does.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 18 Nov 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The discussion with Derleth now takes on a more business-like tone. The moment that Derleth might have been dreading arrived: Zealia had fixated on Derleth as a possible publisher for her collection. Vanity publishing was a skeleton in Arkham House’s closet: not a service that was widely advertised or ever publicly acknowledged, but a circumstance occasionally resorted to, at least with old Weird Tales authors that Derleth was familiar with and presumably whose material was not vastly divergent from Arkham House’s core focus. Given the relatively expensive costs of publishing, the high cost of the resulting books, the small print numbers, and the slow sales, it also wasn’t likely to be a strong financial investment—and that’s before you consider that most of the volume’s contents would be reprints. Derleth presumably expressed at least some of these risks to Zealia Bishop:

What you say about the publishing of the stories interests me. In the event we come to an agreement, how must this money be paid your company? You say you must get $2.50 for you to break even—then what of the author?

I would like to do this, followed by at least three other books, if you could pass on the work, but I would not want the weird tales published if you feel more credit should go to LOVECRAFT. After all, August, he was the teacher and I  the pupil and he was polishing my efforts, trying to direct me, but he did not do any more than you and Frank Long did. While erratic and always in need of money, Frank was an excellent and driving tutor even though we could not always see “eye-to-eye”. I was always pulling between the two teachers trying to write as I wished, not as they were determined I should, but I gained much from both of them as well as from your own kind interest and advice. Yet I would not want to publish the stories as my own efforts if you do not feel I am justified in claiming them. So be perfectly frank and we shall proceed from there.

Am re submitting the articles with the one on H. P. L. Maybe this time you will like the Derleth one better.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I would like very much to work out a plan with you for the publishing of not only the one volume but possibly several more. I feel after your editing, they will all be good and should have reasonable sales. […] My reason for asking how the money is to be paid is that under the circumstances, I cannot draw from a personal fund. I have talked to our banker who has told me “if the contract warrants it” I may borrow the sum.

It is now up to you about the contract. […] I will have the weird tales and articles to you immediately after Christmas. What you choose and assemble will be, of course, entirely up to you.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 22 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

It isn’t clear what Zealia means by “editing” here—that is, whether she means the usual services of copy-editing by removing typos and grammatical errors and checking for factual accuracy, or editing that was more along the lines of wholesale revision, as Lovecraft would have done. Possibly she didn’t know herself. At the very least, he seemed to have convinced her that the volume should consist solely of the three weird tales revised by Lovecraft, plus her articles (if she ever finished them). The issue of cost and “breaking even” is another key issue: assuming that Zealia Bishop was paying for the printing, who was getting what percentage of the cover cost? Without the actual contracts or the Arkham House business records it is difficult to assess, but we get further hints as their correspondence addresses more details of the project.

First, though, Zealia had to finish her articles on Lovecraft and Derleth.

In three days I wrote exactly four words on the revision of the DERLETH article. Howarver [sic], after your letter I set up all night finishing it as well as the ESCHUTECHEON [sic]—so go over them both with a “curry comb”—streamline them where necessary-especially with newspaper publication in mind for DERLETH—and elaborate upon the “HOUSE OF GHOSTS” as I have no details on that other than behind it is: that ARKHAM HOUSE was founded on the memory of LOVECRAFT and his fictious [sic] name of ARKHAM – Incorporate that as you see fit.

I do not think, however, that for the book the real meaty stuff should be deleted.

But revise both article and story as necessary and have both retyped and send me a statement. Do please send the ESCHUTCHEON to your editor friend if it passes your approval. I will work on the LOVECRAFT article tonight and tomorrow night and it will follow as quickly as typed to be handled the same as the DERLETH one. If you find these two articles and the three Weird stories adequate for publication in book form, then let’s get down to figures, publicity plan etc;.

You know I told you I would have to know how muchwhen the bills had to be met and so on. After all, I have to plan ahead for any unusual expense or it would not pass D. W.’s approval—certainly not for writing. He loathes publicity and does not encourage my writing—maybe I should use my little granddaughter’s name—LESLIE S. REED—and become an individual-new-unknown-etc.-and after the successful publication of several things bring out a good personality story—?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This was a little over a week after August Derleth’s marriage; one can imagine that it had begun to dawn on him that for the monies to get the book published, she apparently wanted him to put her articles into printable shape as well as every other task involved with assembling a manuscript. D. W. Bishop was Zealia’s husband, and at that time was essentially an invalid, although he apparently still largely controlled the couple’s finances. The idea of using a pseudonym was probably vetoed by Derleth: one of Zealia’s most bankable assets was likely name recognition from Weird Tales fans from over a decade prior.

Evidently you misunderstood me that day at lunch in Madison. I thought I was very explicit—as well as Helen—that I told you “everything was ready to go except I wanted to rewrite the DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. And that I would positively have to rewrite the LOVECRAFT article entirely.”

I have done what I could on it and am sending it as is, “but I am not in the slightest pleased with it and feel that I should be the one to rewrite it.”

The material is here and could be redone beautifully but it would take me at least another two weeks so I am sending it so that you may pass judgement edit it and then if you think I should rewrite it return or bring it.

I will do the foreword as quickly as possible.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 25 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The Lovecraft article is finished—but you’ll have to have it retypedHelen cannot type fast enough & my secretary has had a baby, has to stay home—etc—etc—so—take it as is—but it must be slicked up & retyped.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (after Apr 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Ultimately The Curse of Yig was published without a foreword, so presumably it was either cut or never finished.

In the correspondence, there are suggestions that Derleth may have been trying to agent the Lovecraft and Derleth essays to magazines or fanzines before the book was published. If this was the case, no record of a prior publication has been found. It’s reasonable to assume that the original manuscripts for the two profiles “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” and “A Wisconsin Balzac: A Profile of August Derleth” required more than a little copy-editing, and possibly wholesale re-writing, including lengthy bibliographical lists in Derleth’s profile, which elicited a comment:

Approve manuscript-with exceptions: some typographical errors and suggest Derleth profile be cut to eliminate so much commercialism and cataloging which should be in a separate pamphlet. Suggest I proof read—What about contract? We should settle on that before printer begins work—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 29 Jun 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The contracts arrived—but you do not mention in your letter that the DERLETH & LOVECRAFT articles are included in THE CURSE OF YIG. Without them the publications would be of little, if any, value to me. I merely mentioned that I thought the article about you included too much listing of your works and killed the interest about the writer and man. […] Your prices do not correspond with those in the printers’ letter. I shall send a check to the artist. Also, watch for proofs from photographers.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 19 Jul 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Before desktop publishing, print costs would be a bit vague: the printer’s letter would have included the quote for costs for an approximate number of books at so many pages; the addition of photographs, large changes in the text, etc. could require substantial rework in terms of layout and raise the cost of the final product. Which is apparently about what happened with The Curse of Yig.

I am going to ask that you proofread this manuscript—particularly the Lovecraft. It needs some smoothing—it seems a little jerky—Maybe you will not think so—. […] I’m much too anxious about publicity, August—that can come with my new name—But I do wish the picture of Derleth & Lovecraft included in the Curse of Yig.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 16 Sep 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

You should add that I have done journalism or writing for several newspapers including an historical series around Clay County Missouri—That I am a member of the National Federation of Press Women & the Missouri Womens Press Club. These women hold pretty well together & would feel slighted if mention were not mad on the blurb.

It would be better if the book dd not come out too soon or at least that the printers bill does not come before Dec if you can so arrange it.

Our Dispersion sale is Oct 21—Final settlement & especially in the case of a dispersal, if normally takes from 60 to 90 days—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (Sep 1953?)

The “dispersion sale” refers to the selling off of the livestock of Highland View Farms, which the Bishops owned; presumably with D. W. Bishop incapacitated they were no longer able to manage the rigorous cattle business. The blurb on the inside rear flap of her book jacket does include all of the points she wished included in the above letter.

Zblurb

We have not yet had the bill from Banta, but it will be coming along in a week or ten days, and it will be due thirty days from its date. I will send you a copy of it promptly, but I will not notify you how much you will have to pay until some time later, since we will want to wait at least until November 10th to give payments and orders time to come in. We have had 27 advance orders to date, and of course we have about 100 standing orders with the shops, though their payments will very probably not come through at once, and you will have to be remitted to you after you have met the bill.  Our shipment indicates that somewhere between 1200 and 1220 copies of THE CURSE OF YIG were printed; the book itself is very handsome, I feel.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 20 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I enclose a copy of the bill from the printing company for THE CURSE OF YIG. This is due November 15. You will note its details, please, and then return it to me in the envelope enclosed for that purpose. You will see that 1217 copies of the book came to $1,698.23, or a cost over all of approximately $1.40 per book. The deduction of $14.45 is listed as “150 copies of last section” which I had printed for lecture platform use, and it is thus my personal expense, and is included here only because it is part of the “job” of printing for Banta.

Now, then, as of today, the book has actually brought is, with the per copy deduction for our handling charge already taken off, a total of $127.40, which, deducted from $1698.25, would leave you—as of today, that is—the sum of $1,5580.73 to send to me. However, this sum will be further reduced by still further orders to come in and to be paid for. $127.50 represents only 50 copies of the book at $3 the copy, less .45$ handling charge […] We have, however, sold 157 copies of the book thus far, and there are thus manifestly more payments due to us. I do not know how many of those payments will come in before the bill must be paid, but it seems certain that the total amount you will have to pay will be not less than $1,400.00, judging by previous experience with payments to us.

A study of the bill will show you some interesting things. For instance, the inclusion of the two photographs, which you wanted inserted, added a total of $55.78 to the cost of production. Alterations in text and jacket, at $5.50 an hour, added a further total of $73.60. These were potentially avoidable expenses, of course; to offset them I could arrange only for an $11.58 deduction as indicated in the final credit entry. On the other hand, the 200 extra copies I added to the print order, cost only another hundred dollars, which, it seems to me, is well worth the additional expense, since we have just 200 copies more with which to come into the black from the red on this title. We should come out all right; happily, we are discovering that patrons who do already have your stories in our earlier collections are still ordering this title because they want a complete Arkham House collection. […] Do now please arrange to send the required sum as soon as I let you know; figure on paying at least $1,400.00 […]
John Stanton to Zealia Bishop, 27 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House contracted with George Banta Publishing Company of Wisconsin for the physical publication of the books; John Stanton was an Arkham House employee that handled some of the business matters. Copies of the “lecture platform” edition of “A Wisconsin Balzac” appear to be extremely rare ephemera.

s-l1600

As the bill comes due, the question of reimbursement and profits comes up again. The stock price of the book was $3, and the “handling fee” was $0.45/book, so the gross value of each book was $2.55. At 1217 books, that left a potential gross of $3103.35—but how much of that would Zealia be getting? How many copies would have to sell for her to recoup the cost of printing? There’s no doubt that Derleth had to be getting at least a portion of the cover price to keep the lights on at Arkham House. Nevertheless, the terms must have been acceptable enough, because Zealia footed the printer’s bill.

Herewith is check on account for 300.00—leaving a balance of 1100.00 which you shall have not later than November 14th. I may be in Madison on that day or before—but you may depend on the check on that day in any eventuality. This has been a little difficult to handle as you told me that the bill would come in on Nov 10th & be payable in thirty days—If this is the fact let me know as it would be easier for me & I would not have to borrow any money—as I will have checks coming in to cover the amount early in Dec—Write me about this at once. It means a great deal to me—as previously explained. […]

I’m not interested in publicity–merely that sales pay the amount used to publish it—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. late Oct 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Herewith is the 1100.00 balance on the printing bill etc.—in three checks. I would like, if possible, for you to deposit them a few days intervals. The money is on deposit—but we have a devil of a banker—who is just as apt as not to call me out of a sound sleep & say “why are this….”  knowing that D. W. would know nothing of the deal & that I would be called upon to explain. Things will not always be like this—at present, however, to antagonize anyone could be disastrous. Since you can be assured that the money is in the bank I know you will arrange to handle the amount with your usual diplomacy.

It is impossible to say now how “Yig” is going or will go over. I’m receiving “fan” mail, of course—but that’s all happened before— […]

D. W. took one fleeting glance at the book. He did not so much as touch  it & has never mentioned it. That has cut me deeply—the girls, too, are wounded over his attitude—but it has only made me more determined to continue on—to do something more as often as I can—I cannot be destroyed—so many & so much depend upon me & my well being. […]

I hope “Yig” is successful enough to offset the printer’s bill & that we may publish one or two more under this plan then perhaps the other things will sell outright.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. Nov 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

If Zealia Bishop hoped that the book would sell quickly, she had either deluded herself or else Derleth hadn’t been entirely forthright about the economics of the situation. As it was, it was not many months later when he was forced to write the kind of letter a writer hates to get.

I’m afraid you haven’t read your contract with Arkham House. There is no money due you by February 10th, I am sorry to say. The very earliest that any payment would be earned, would be in June, and I am not sure that there will be a payment then. The contract specifies that royalty reports on earnings shall be made after every half year, and that payments shall be made thereon not later than June and December respectively, following. Thus your first royalty reportwhich I shall try to have made up and enclose for youcarries you up to 1 January 1954, and covers the sale of only 250 books. And we have sold just 20 books since then, for a total of 270 books so far.

You will recall, too, that the total bill was $1,712.68, of which $14.45 was my personal responsibility—see my letter of 27 October 1953—leaving the actual cost of THE CURSE OF YIG—not counting other expenses incurred here which I did not put on the bill—at $1,698.23. Of this sum, you were asked to pay only $1,400.00, in the hope that the remaining figure would be earned by the time the bill was met. It was not quite earned; so you do not begin to receive monies until some months after (the first June to December) our royalty reports show that your book has earned the full $298.23. That is to say, form the first report of earnings, we must deduct no less than $298.23 plus a .45¢ per title handling charge, as per contract. If my estimate, purely off the cuff, is correct, the payment to you in June will be approximately $150.00, $20 more or less. My rough estimate puts it at just short of $150.00, but if I can have Alice make up the royalty statement in time to enclose it in this letter, than you will know for certain just what is due you in June; following which, the next payment will be made to you in December of this year, and on the same basis, at the same intervals, thereafter.

I am sorry that THE CURSE OF YIG has not sold faster; we are now just under 25% of the edition sold, and I know we will sell all the books, but they are just not moving fast, and none of our titles do so move. It took us 10 years to sell 1200 copies of THE OUTSIDER & OTHERS; yet, on the other hand, we sold 4,000 copies of SLAN in short of 4 years. But you will recall that I told you in advance not to expect any miracle sales, but a slow, steady accretion of sales. An initial payment of $150 or slightly less does represent 10% of your investment, and that is not too bad for two months’ sales, considering. […] We published Seabury Quinn’s ROADS in a 2000 copy edition in 1948 under a similar arrangement; it took him 4 years to recoup his $900 investment, and he is still earning his royalties now. We published David Keller’s TALES FROM UNDERWOOD in 1951 under a similar arrangement; he invested $1725, and still has $1450 to be earned for him.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 22 Jan 1954, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

25% would equate to about ~300 books sold in only two months (or a bit longer, counting advance sales); that should have grossed $900, or $765 minus the handling charges. If Zealia still owed ~$300 on the printing and might still expect $150 in June, that suggests her share or 300 books sold amounted to $450 net, so she was getting something like $1.50 per book (and remember that the printing cost was $1.40 per book). That leaves a full dollar of the cover cost unaccounted for, so either Derleth’s math is fuzzy, or (hopefully) there is a large piece of the accounting picture missing, because at $1.50 a copy Zealia would have to sell almost the entire run to earn out her initial investment ($1,698.23 / $1.50 per book = 1133 books), much less expect to see a profit.

We can compare these estimates with the one extant earnings statement:

Screenshot 2020-12-20 at 6.52.30 PM

$627.75 / 384 books = $1.63 per book, which isn’t far off from the estimate (presumably Derleth is rounding somewhere), but the basic picture is the same: to actually earn back her money, much less make a profit, The Curse of Yig would need to sell most of the edition. Just to break even, Arkham House would need to sell ($1,070.48 / $1.63 per book = 657 books), and there were only 833 left in the edition—and some of those might probably be author’s copies, archival copies, etc. At the current rate (384 books/year) the book wouldn’t be expected to show a real profit until 1956.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead of sales remaining steady, they appear to have decreased:

Our Bishop book, done in October 1953, has sold only 450 copies so far; and our Metcalfe, done in April 54, only 400. The one was largely reprint material, true, but the other was new work, though by a British author.
—August Derleth to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 May 1955, Eccentric, Impracticable Devils 451

Several of Zealia’s later letters to Derleth, tracking her economic decline, include requests for checks ahead of the agreed-upon schedule, no matter how small. In at least some cases, Derleth appears to have done his best to comply…but any hopes of actual profit, much less further publication, probably vanished quickly.

Certainly there seems to be an even interest in Yig—What do you think about a paperback for it—& in Airports etc?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d., MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The reason it’s called vanity publishing is because it is vain.

At the end of the day, The Curse of Yig would seem to largely be a book for Arkham House collectors more than general fantasy or horror readers. One contemporary review probably said it best:

Zealia B. Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (Arkham House, $3) contains three negligible stories from Weird Tales, plus two first-rate biographical profiles: one plausibly presenting H. P. Lovecraft in a somewhat less favorable light than that in which he is shown by his idolaters, and one which comes close to doing justice to the fabulous career of August Derleth.
—”Recommended Reading” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, vol. 6, no.2 (Feb 1954) 95

Much of the enduring legacy of The Curse of Yig lies not with the stories themselves—these were the Derleth-edited texts, later superseded by corrected texts compiled and edited by S. T. Joshi in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989, Arkham House). “A Wisconsin Balzac” has never been reprinted, and may well have been written entirely by Derleth himself.

What has been reprinted, and is perhaps the most remembered inclusion to The Curse of Yig is “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”—Zealia’s long-simmering, often re-written memoir of being Lovecraft’s student-cum-revision client. While not without its flaws, this was until the publication of their letters the only account of Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop’s professional and personal relationship available.

Which in its own way is what The Curse of Yig is: a testament to the lasting impact of these two human beings on one another, and through their fiction on the world. No other woman would be so associated with Lovecraft for decades afterwards; no other woman would have her own Mythos anthology until after the death of August Derleth in 1971. The Curse of Yig might have been a commercial failure, but those books still exist, and are purchased and read today. While every writer might hope for profit during their own lifetime, what more could a writer hope for, after they’re dead and gone, but to be read and remembered?


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

“The Wyrd Voyage” (2020) by Kari Leigh Sanders

I know that this tale seems unbelievable, and had I not come across a different one before it, I would have thought it a jest or a lie. However, a few years ago, before I was presented with this collection, I was given a transcript of Karl Heinreich, Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein, Lieutenant-Commander in the Imperial German Navy*, dated in 1917 wherein he encounters a very similar place—at the bottom of the sea. I leave it to you to decide.
* This is a reference to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple”
—Kari Leigh Sanders, “The Wyrd Voyage” in More Lore from the Mythos 171

The English word weird is derived from the Old English wyrd. The older word represents a concept of personal fate or destiny, being cognate with the Old Norse urðr, which was also a name for one of the Norns. When Shakespeare wrote of the “Weird Sisters” in Macbeth, he meant that the witches were those who could see—or declare—the personal destinies of others, to which they were bound. They were supernatural entities, and in modern English this was the sense that came into common usage: weird as supernatural, uncanny, odd.

“The Wyrd Voyage” is then a deliberate pun: because while it is weird fiction in the contemporary sense, it is also very explicitly wyrd fiction in that much older sense: a story about fate. This is particularly fitting as it is woven as a near-Mythic prequel to H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Temple.” This isn’t so much a story about what has happened or what might happen, but what is bound to happen. “The Temple” was written long ago; we know where the story is going. The question is how it got there.

H. P. Lovecraft didn’t write much about the ancient Norse peoples or going viking. His friend Robert E. Howard did, and some readers might like to try and draw a connection between the Mythos and stories like “The Cairn on the Headland” or “Marchers of Valhalla,” but for the most part, ancient Scandinavia is a blank slate as far as the Lovecraft Mythos stories go. Anyone that wants to write Mythos fiction set during the period of the Viking Age has more literary freedom in their depiction of the Mythos because it is terra incognita.

In the case of Kari Leigh Sanders and “The Wyrd Voyage,” she keeps it fairly self-contained: no effort to draw in Cthulhu or the Deep Ones or any other familiar names, beyond the Norse Mythos itself. It isn’t quite sword & sorcery (although is it very much Vikings & Völva), and it is a bit more Mythic than Mythos, in the sense that recognizable Norse deities like Loki and Hel make their personal appearances. If readers are used to more recognizable human pantheons being absent or effectively non-existent compared to the physical reality of Mythos entities like Cthulhu, that might be a little jarring. Yet it also presents certain interesting possibilities.

By itself, “The Wyrd Voyage” is basically a standalone story. It is a precursor to “The Temple,” but the events of that story happen centuries later, so they are chronologically isolated. Now imagine that this story is not considered in isolation. Imagine after you read “The Wyrd Voyage” you read “The Viking in Yellow” (2014) by Christine Morgan—and now you have two data points, two stories which share a Viking Age setting and as well a supernatural element…and if you’re a reader of a certain inclination, maybe you’ll look for more. Maybe you’ll find them. Take notes, see how those stories might work as, not two separate stories, but part of a larger setting…and like that, you’ve got the basis of a new corner of the Mythos. Or at least, one that hasn’t been quite as thoroughly explored as a few others.

When looking at settings in the past like there, there is a certain foreordained quality. You the reader know the world will not end in the Viking Age, because you live after that period and the world, at least for you, has not ended. So you as a reader know something of the wyrd of those characters and stories: while they may live or die, the world itself shall continue. Which tends to lend a tragic cast to these characters: no matter how hard they fight, no matter if they succeed, one day the stars will be right…

There’s more than a hint of wyrd fiction to the Mythos over all. Stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and The Shadow Out of Time emphasize a certain inevitability. It is one of the more profound, if often misunderstood and mischaracterized themes in Mythos fiction: the idea that, over a long enough span of time, human effort becomes negligible. The Dunwich Horror may be banished, but that is at best only a slight reprieve: the Old Ones will break through again—if not today, then tomorrow, or in a hundred or a thousand or ten thousand years. How characters respond to that realization that realization of the cosmic scale of what they face—that “victory” in any sense must be temporary, a stopgap, a momentary breathing space—is critical.

You might wonder what the silent, sometimes unseeing dead could teach me, they taught me silence and acceptance. It might not be as exciting as the stories and secrets of the gods, or as useful as capturing the winds and weaving, but it is still a good lesson. Particularly for someone with my wyrd.
—Kari Leigh Sanders, “The Wyrd Voyage” in More Lore from the Mythos 152

“The Wyrd Voyage” in More Lore from the Mythos (2020). Kari Leigh Sanders also wrote “A Governess in Innsmouth” in More Lore from the Mythos Vol. 2 (2020).


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

“Unseen” (2020) by Claire Leslie

What if we focused an entire anthology on the gods and monsters of Lovecraft, instead of just the horror? How would that feel, especially since Lovecraft specifically kept the gods in the background, lest we look upon them and go insane?
—Russel Nohelty, Cthulhu Is Hard To Spell: The Terrible Twos

It is a popular trope—sometimes amounting to a complaint—that Lovecraft kept his most tremendous horrors off the page; that all of his bogeys and Mythos entities were impossible, indescribable, ineffable, and unnamable. The truth is a little more complicated. Lovecraft recognized that a reader’s imagination could go places which no artist could achieve with pen and ink, and often strove to put off showing the horror to let the terror build and build, to strengthen the atmosphere by degrees with careful excitation, to hint darkly to suggest certain things that were more effective for being unseen.

In this, Lovecraft was not alone. Guy de Maupassant’s “Le Horla” (1887), Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned Thing” (1893), Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” (1907) are all characterized by unseen or unseeable horrors; subtlety in description was characteristic of Edgar Allan Poe, Arthur Machen, and M. R. James who were all influences on Lovecraft. Lovecraft was working within an established tradition when he held off from immediately describing the exact shape and form of some of some his Mythos entities in clinical detail…and yet, when the time came for them to appear, Lovecraft wasn’t shy about that either. Nor did the sight immediately drive the viewers mad.

Poor Johansen’s handwriting almost gave out when he wrote of this. Of the six men who never reached the ship, he thinks two perished of pure fright in that accursed instant. The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

“The Thing cannot be described”—then Lovecraft goes ahead and describes it.

Like many of the tropes of the Cthulhu Mythos, the idea of seeing a Mythos entity driving an individual insane is something that developed in the secondary literature, where authors were more likely to copy the more superficial aspects of Lovecraft’s work instead of the core themes that they served. Sandy Petersen in The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game introduced the Sanity mechanic as a sort of mental equivalent to Hit Points in Dungeons & Dragons. In D&D, when your hit points run out your character dies and the game ends for that character; in CoC, when your Sanity runs out your character is insane and the game ends for that character. In games of Call of Cthulhu, seeing the monsters really does shave points off your Sanity. This has led to a lot of un-Lovecraftian behavior on the tabletop: player characters, wanting to continue to play, may deliberately avoid looking at the eldritch horrors as they toss a grenade or a stick of dynamite in that direction, or perhaps they might burn the ancient Mythos tome instead of suffering whatever Sanity it would cost them to read through the terrible pages.

In terms of illustrating the Mythos, this creates an obvious issue: how do you try to visualize and capture some of the indescribable quality of these entities and places? Some artists achieve at least partial success: John Coulthart’s R’lyeh in The Haunter in the Dark and Other Grotesque Visions springs to mind, the delightfully detailed morbid and erotic fantasies of Raúl Cáceres’ Insania Tenebris, probably a few others whose art isn’t afraid to tiptoe up to and past the point of taboo. Yet even if some of these images are haunting, they are ultimately just that: images. As with “The Picture in the House,” there’s not that sense that staring too long at them is going to shave off a few Sanity points or necessarily instill some terrible knowledge.

That is one of reasons that comics and graphic novels based on the Mythos are so interesting: it isn’t just a question of the technical quality of the artist, or even of the power of their conception and execution. It is the interaction of art and text which come together. Anyone can make a comic adaptation of a Lovecraft story; At the Mountains of Madness could be adapted on sticky notes with stick figures, and Lovecraft’s text would come through and hold the same power. The question is, what interplay is offered in the combination of art and text? How can one serve and enhance the other? What kind of stories can you tell in comic form, that would be impossible to tell with art or text alone?

“Unseen” by Claire Leslie is one such example. In four pages, Leslie manages a surprisingly complex narrative, not so much by what is spoken, but what is unspoken. The reader, looking at the page from without, sees more than one of the characters does—and there is plenty of room to read between the lines regarding what they want to say to each other, but can’t. As an exploration of a concept, the length is perfect: readers get a sense of the Lovecraftian goings-on, the slow build of intrusive elements, without getting tired of them. The whole story can be read in a few minutes, yet the reader might turn back to it two or three times and still find some new little detail to reflect on.

Leslie Abdul

Leslie’s style has a certain quality that’s somewhere between bishōnen and Tom of Finland, with a bit of a Gothic quality, reminiscent of Olivier Ladroit’s work for Requiem Chevalier Vampire, but with a more dreamlike quality to her digital paint technique, tight clothes on muscular figures, but with long, effeminate eyelashes and manicured hands. The art suits the writing; readers pick up on character traits without having to be told them directly, and this sells the idea of things left unspoken, or perhaps something else that one of the characters just cannot see but that the reader can.

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“Unseen” was created by Claire Leslie and published in Cthulhu Is Hard to Spell: The Terrible Twos (2020, Wannabee Press), edited by Russell Nohelty. The book was originally launched on Kickstarter, though you can still buy hardcopies on etsy and digital editions are available on Kindle/Comixology. Leslie also did a separate mock cover for “Unseen,” which is available as a print from her etsy store.


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

“The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” (2020) by Cathy Smith

Your imagination is too pedestrian.
—Cathy Smith, “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” in Eldritch Dream Realms 156

H. P. Lovecraft set most of his stories in the 1920s and 30s. They were not, for the most part, stories of the long ago no matter how ancient the horrors might be, those horrors were intruding on the present. Readers would have recognized this; the suspension of disbelief was that such things could occur in the now.

Many of those who followed Lovecraft continued to focus on that Jazz Age period. It became a part of the atmosphere and mood of the setting. Rumrunners and gangsters, such as in “Moonshine” (2018) by G. D. Penman; confessionals like “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986) by Sally Theobald; colonialism and Yellow Peril as in “Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek. Not everyone chose to confine themselves to that period, but enough did to strongly flavor Mythos fiction as a whole. It is no surprise that The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game‘s default setting is the 1920s and 30s.

Some writers have sought to drag the Mythos into the current now—and in so doing, face a continuously shifting target. August Derleth’s depiction of nuclear weapons versus the Mythos in his “Trail of Cthulhu” serial is only possible in a world where the atom bomb is a reality; Robert Bloch’s Mythos novel Strange Eons (1979) is first and foremost a contemporary novel, both in setting and perhaps more importantly in tone and content; the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game settings of Cthulhu Now (1987) and Delta Green (1997) both seek to bridge that gap between Lovecraft’s setting and how it might be adapted to the world we live in today—and these efforts always contain a certain amount of baked-in obsolescence. Today becomes yesterday, tomorrow becomes today.

This is the basic reason why CthulhuPunk fiction, rare enough in itself, tends to age out pretty quickly. Stories like “Star Bright, Star Byte” (1994) by Marella Sands become quaint when technology zigs instead of zags. We don’t have fully-immersive virtual reality settings which are structured according to old-school bulletin board systems. That just never happened; the internet blossomed into its own weird, terrible, awe-inspiring way. The zeitgeist, even if captured with tremendous decision, tends to fade very quickly.

Why do you think transhumanism is the way to immortality? Doesn’t our computer tech become obsolete every few years?
—Cathy Smith, “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” in Eldritch Dream Realms 151

One of the great strengths of the Mythos as a discrete flavor or set of buildings blocks is that it does mix well with a great many things—different genres, tones, forms, and settings. You can have a lighthearted Mythos-inflected noir story, set it in outer space in the distant future, written in as an epic poem, and that is still very much recognizable as “Mythos.” In that sense, the Mythos is extremely versatile and adaptable, which may be why it has continued to attract new readers and writers. Individual stories may chase the zeitgeist, but Mythos fiction itself is both eternal (in that so much of it remains in print) and perennial (in that so much continues to be written).

Cathy Smith’s “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Live” is a story that lives entirely in the contemporary zeitgeist. It could, possibly, have been written in 2015 or so, but the culture of the internet, video blogging, crowdfunding, “fake news,” and debunking is very much the finger on the pulse of the world with Donald Trump as president, even if Smith is careful to avoid any direct mention of the president or politics in general. Perhaps by 2020, the story might already be obsolete; Patreon might dissolve, YouTube might transform itself, “apps” and smartphones might evolve. We cannot foresee the future, some people cannot even see the present.

In many ways, this story is a good pairing with “The Nyarlathotep Experience™” (2019) by Miguel Fliguer. It too is a take-off from Lovecraft’s “Nyarlathotep,” a “what if?” that drags the old familiar horrors into the syntax of the now, and imagines how contemporary sensibilities would skew that reception. Yet there is something a little different at work here too; more than crass commercialization, the story is at heart a sickening pokes-fun at a world and culture and perspective of online rage and militant disbelief. Smith stops short of an abject moral: while the inability to allow the experience of wonder is portrayed as a toxic condition that harms those who cling to it, the same narrow world view proves an effective buffer and defense against those very forces that prey on the more easily awed and gullible.

If only because Nyarlathotep bemusedly decides to there is appeal in those who torture themselves in such internet drama, gaining courage only when safely and anonymously behind a screen. Who is to say that such a view is wrong? How would the Mythos be perceived today, if it was real and uploading Youtube videos? A very crass and earthbound thought—but that is the issue with the Mythos marrying the zeitgeist. If the story is set in the present, the view is almost always myopic; it doesn’t look at the present as seen from the 1920s, as Lovecraft might have seen it. “Now” stories are grounded in the life we can see and absorb around us, newspaper headlines and ways of life we are familiar with. Smith handles that very well.

Cathy Smith’s “The Descent of Reginald Pembroke Love” was published in Eldritch Dream Realms: Tales from Lovecraft’s Dream Realms (2020).


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

“From the Cold Dark Sea” (2016) by Storm Constantine

“Book title Marvels of the Deeps,” she began. “Dimensions approximately 30 centimeters width, 40 centimeters height. Thickness 8 centimeters.”

“How very forensic,” murmured Mrs. De La Mere.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 278

Bibliophilia has been descried as “the gentle madness,” and is one of the more respectable sorts of mental illness for both fans and characters of the Mythos to fall into. Ever since Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon and Robert E. Howard’s history of Nameless Cults in “The Black Stone”, the various tomes and texts of the Mythos have attracted the love of readers. Sometimes this extends to full catalogs of pseudobiblia, including Ex Libris Miskatonici (1993) by Joan C. Stanley and The Starry Wisdom Library: The Catalogue of the Greatest Occult Book Auction of All Time (2014) edited by Nade Pedersen. Sometimes too, it provides an entry into a story through the antiquarian book trade: collectors, sellers, forgers, book detectives like Corso in The Club Dumas (2006) by Arturo Perez-Reverte…and, in the case of Storm Constantine’s “From the Cold, Dark Sea,” a book-restorer named Cara Milltop.

It’s a fish out of water story, pun very much intended. The shadow of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” hangs over it, as it does with many other stories, though Constantine makes no explicit mention of either Innsmouth or the Deep Ones. This is a Mythos story in construction and inference; Cara Milltop never hears any calls to Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, or great Cthulhu. Yet there is enough indisputably there that Mythos aficionados can slip into the feel of this story like putting on an old glove; the pace and texture of it almost tells itself—but Constantine knows what she is doing, and if you don’t question the plot there’s more than enough embroidery on the Deep Ones lore to satisfy, with some lovely imagery to the description of the woodcuts and the dreams that they bring.

What really sets “From the Cold, Dark Sea” apart from stories like “Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader is that there is no confirmation. Cara Milltop remains a hired hand, an outsider. Knowledge does not bring initiation, nor does Constantine provide a final proof to any mystery. The unreadable words on the page remain unread, the actual truth remains unconfirmed. Readers are left to wonder if it really is just all in Cara’s head, an overactive imagination from working to restore an old book, exacerbated by staying in a spooky old house full of women.

There are no male characters in the story. Something that might sneak up on readers, but one of those nice details that dovetails with the frisson of unknowing in the story. Is it just coincidence, or is there something more to it? The legend, as Cara interprets it, is a female rite of passage, starkly in contrast to the patriarchal approach of the Esoteric Order of Dagon in, say, “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Not so much a rebuttal to Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” but an alternative. Maybe the Deep Ones don’t marry, as such.

Of course, if every child survived there would be far too many of them. How cruel, though, how barbaric. Yet, little different from the way baby turtles started life, Cara thought. Just the cruel barbarism of Nature herself.
—Storm Constantine, “From the Cold Dark Sea” in Dreams From the Witch House 294

Bibliophilia is a gentle madness. Cara Milltop never gets violent, never says outright what she thinks she knows—or suspects. The Marvels of the Deep can slide onto the shelf next to The R’lyeh Text and the Cthäat Aquadingen, squeezed between the Codex Dagonesis and Invocations to Dagon, and it would not be out of place. What she is left with in the end is not horror, or awe, but disappointment. To have come that close to something so magical, or almost-magical, and yet be unable to know if what she suspects is true, no invitation to take part. In the end, she doesn’t even have the book; she was only there to restore it, as she did. Money is a poor coin in a Mythos story, because so rarely can it buy what the characters—and the readers—really want.

“From the Cold, Dark Sea” was first published in Dreams From the Witch House (2016), and was reprinted in Storm Constantine’s collection Mythumbra (2018).


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

“This Weave of Witchery” (2019) by W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Snyder

I’ve been working with Maryanne K. Snyder on a book of collaborative work, and she has proved an absolute delight to work with.  I prefer to write alone, collaborating is a lot more work for me; but often writing with someone else can take you to places you would never otherwise discover writing on your own. 
—W. H. Pugmire, “New Story Sale” (6 Oct 2010)

On the surface, “This Weave of Witchery” feels almost unfinished. Bits of pieces of Sesqua Valley and Lovecraft Country, dovetailed together into a kind of prose poem, capturing echoes of old moods: “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Silver Key,” “Born in Strange Shadow” and “Some Distant Baying Sound.” Imagine treading old, familiar territory, only to look back and suddenly see it from an angle you’ve never seen it before. Familiar, yet strange. That’s the prevailing attitude of “This Weave of Witchery.”

The plot feels like a deliberate reworking of “The Silver Key,” but from a different angle. Many writers have worked around the theme of losing the ability to dream—either literally, or in the sense of losing some creative urge or muse. Lord Dunsany wrote a bit about that in the end of “Idle Days on the Yann”:

Long we regarded one another, knowing that we should meet no more, for my fancy is weakening as the years slip by, and I go ever more seldom into the Lands of Dream. Then we clasped hands, uncouthly on his part, for it is not the method of greeting in his country, and he commended my soul to the care of his own gods, to his little lesser gods, the humble ones, to the gods that bless Belzoond.

Dunsany had followed this up in “The Shop In Go-By Street,” where the protagonist seeks once more to return to the Lands of Dream, only to find:

I would have waited three more days, but on the third day I had gone in my loneliness to see the very spot where first I met Bird of the River at her anchorage with her bearded captain sitting on the deck. And as I looked at the black mud of the harbour and pictured in my mind that band of sailors whom I had not seen for two years, I saw an old hulk peeping from the mud. The lapse of centuries seemed partly to have rotted and partly to have buried in the mud all but the prow of the boat and on the prow I faintly saw a name. I read it slowly— it was Bird of the River. And then I knew that, while in Ireland and London two years had barely passed over my head, ages had gone over the region of Yann and wrecked and rotted that once familiar ship, and buried years ago the bones of the youngest of my friends, who so often sang to me of Durl and Duz or told the dragon-legends of Belzoond.

There is something of this in Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key,” and perhaps in Pugmire & Snyder’s story something of Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams:

He strove to rise from his chair, to cry out, but he could not. Deep, deep the darkness closed upon him, and the storm sounded far away. The Roman fort surged up, terrific, and he saw the writhing boughs in a ring, and behind them a glow and heat of fire. There were hideous shapes that swarmed in the thicket of the oaks; they called and beckoned to him, and rose into the air, into the flame that was smitten from heaven about the walls. And amongst them was the form of the beloved, but jets of flame issued from her breasts, and beside her was a horrible old woman, naked; and they, too, summoned him to mount the hill.

He heard Dr. Burrows whispering of the strange things that had been found in old Mrs. Gibbon’s cottage, obscene figures, and unknown contrivances. She was a witch, he said, and the mistress of witches.

He fought against the nightmare, against the illusion that bewildered him. All his life, he thought, had been an evil dream, and for the common world he had fashioned an unreal red garment, that burned in his eyes. Truth and the dream were so mingled that now he could not divide one from the other. He had let Annie drink his soul beneath the hill, on the night when the moonfire shone, but he had not surely seen her exalted in the flame, the Queen of the Sabbath. Dimly he remembered Dr. Burrows coming to see him in London, but had he not imagined all the rest?

Compare with:

It came as a wall of liquid blackness, an inky abyss in which he felt he would be drowned. There was something almost beguiling in its churning sentience, and he felt the need to speak to it, to name himself. Parting lips, he moaned his name as the blackness spilled into his mouth and shook him awake. […] Early sunset washed the sky over Sesqua Valley with muted color, and Thorley stood for a little while to appreciate the orange and pink effects that tainted the white stone of the titanic twin-peaked mountain. He had never thought to see that mountain again, and did not remember its effect on him, how it captivated one part of his mind and troubled another. He gazed at it until he felt himself grow faint, and then he remembered his mother’s words of caution, “It’s not wise to stare at Mount Selta for too long a time. Turn your eyes away.”
—W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Synder, “This Weave of Witchery” in An Imp of Aether 211

These are old themes, paths well-trod, familiar territory for weird fiction aficionados. Donald Wandrei touched on such confusions of dreams and reality in the obscure Mythos story “The Lady in Gray”; and maybe there’s something of that in this weave of witchery as well.

If Pugmire & Snyder had done no more than write a prose poem in that tradition, one more bridge between the waking world and the Dreamlands, “The Weave of Witchery” would be an unremarkable yet solid entry. Yet they did manage to find a new perspective, one which Dunsany, Machen, Lovecraft, & Wandrei had not played with. Think back to “The Silver Key,” and Randolph Carter’s lament of what he had lost—and think of how it would change the story if he was wrong.

“This Weave of Witchery” is the fourth published collaboration between W. H. Pugmire & Maryanne K. Snyder, the others being “The House of Idiot Children” (2008), “The Hidden Realm” (2011), and “The Seventh Eikon” (2012). “This Weave of Witchery” was first published in An Imp of Aether (2019).


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

Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス)

Monsters once were ghastly beasts that devoured the flesh and blood of human beings. However, since the ascension of the new Overlord, a succubus with godlike power, monsters have taken on utterly different, bewitching, and fantastic forms resembling those of alluring women. These outward changes have been accompanied by dramatic shifts in their ways of life, patterns of behavior, and values.
—foreword to Monster Girl Encyclopedia Vol. II

The Monster Girl Encyclopedia (魔物娘図鑑, 2015) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス) is a variation on the popular pseudobiblia bestiary genre. In the Dungeons & Dragons-inspired fantasy setting that Kenkou Cross has created, a succubus has risen to the position of evil Overlord, and turned all the monsters into, essentially, nubile female forms obsessed with sex. The second volume in the series (魔物娘図鑑 II, 2016) has introduced some Mythos-related entities including the shoggoth, and the series has gone on to generate a good deal of fanfiction, dōjinshi (同人誌, fan-created artwork, comics, etc.) and expanded media, which varies from the sedate to the outright pornographic…and these two works have been translated into English by DK with “English Adaptation” by Harriet Fray.

To really understand and appreciate what Kenkou Cross has done, we have to look at how they got here.

Dungeons & Dragons was published in 1974, a collaboration between Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson and published by TSR, Inc. The original boxed set included a Monsters & Treasure booklet which had brief descriptions of and rules for iconic fantasy monsters—and these were, for the most part, taken from generic fantasy (The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Greek mythology, the 1,001 Nights, etc.); there weren’t much in the way of “original” monsters. In 1977 a revised and expanded edition of the game was published which included a much expanded Monster Manual, which included not only more monsters and illustrations on the monsters, but details on their culture, life, habits, etc. These were still pretty scanty, but from this humble beginning nearly every other roleplaying game has developed their own bestiary or critter compendium. In 1980, TSR Inc. published Deities & Demigods by Jim Ward, which included the first published bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos.

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This led to a little kerfuffle; the author had gotten permission from Arkham House to use the Mythos in the book, but Arkham House had also just granted a license to Chaosium, Inc. to develop a roleplaying game based on the Mythos, and they were also developing an RPG based on the Elric stories of Michael Moorcock (who had done basically the same thing as Arkham House). No harm was done, and in the book’s third printing TSR Inc. dropped the two sections with a brief notice.

Chaosium, Inc. itself would take a different approach to its monsters. Efforts to categorize the entities in the Mythos dated back to the 1930s efforts of R. H. Barlow and the 1940s efforts of August Derleth and F. T. Laney, whose critical essay “The Cthulhu Mythos: A Glossary” was published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House). So while the new Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (1981, Chaosium, Inc.) did contain a very Dungeons & Dragons-style bestiary section in the main roleplaying book, it also produced a pair of very novel products that were different than anything TSR, Inc. had done to that point: S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Cthulhu Monsters: A Field Observer’s Handbook of Preternatural Entities (1988) and S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Creatures of the Dreamlands (1989).

These were lavishly illustrated books which hewed closer to Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials (1987) in design and format than the “standard” roleplaying game bestiary, providing lavish full illustrations for each monster in forms that would go on to be iconic, and solely dedicated to the identification, habits, culture, etc. of the various entities within, instead of game stats. All the stats for these creatures were in the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game book itself, and the books have become so iconic that the latest (7th) edition of the game has produced a brand new version, S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors (2016).

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The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game was not just released in English, however. It was translated into several languages, including Japanese—and the game proved to be a major hit in Japan. More products were translated, including the ’88 and ’89 S. Petersen’s Field Guides (a combined edition was published by Hobby Japan in 1994), and the company and fans in Japan began to produce original material for the game, both official and unofficial—dōjinshi.

One of these dōjinshi products was the Dunwitch IX Field Guide to Cthulhu Monstergals. This was essentially a fan-created spoof of the S. Petersen guides, right down to the format, except that the familiar Cthulhu Mythos entities were replaced by monster girl versions of themselves.

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Monster girls are a Japanese cultural phenomenon where a normally frightening monster is replaced with a moe (萌え) version of itself; moe being a term that designates a feeling of strong affection and cuteness, and is often combined with non-anthromorphic entities or concepts to create a (typically) young and attractive female character to personify the normally unrelateable. The juxtaposition might be near-sacrilegious to folks that like to keep the Mythos scary, but should be understood as a product of Japanese fan interpretation, all in good fun. Monster girls have been the focus of “monster girlfriend” manga and anime, including “The Elder Sister-like One, Vol. 1” (2016) by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。)…and the Monster Girl Encyclopedia which was published in 2015.

Sometimes, artists go beyond the bounds of “cute” and clean, relatively innocent and positive sexual attraction implied by moe and venture into actual hardcore erotic artwork and writing. This twist often makes the cute girls the victims of the now much more traditionally monstrous monsters. An example of this is Shindo L (新堂 エル)’s Bestiary series which so far as three volumes (2011-2015); the third volume includes a section on the Deep Ones, who in Shindo L’s setting are quite literally rapacious towards human women.

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Which brings us back to Kenkou Cross and the Monster Girl Encyclopedia. This book is not a roleplaying game product, although it is derived from and uses some of the same tropes. There is no game system specified, no statistics or mechanics for the monsters like in Dungeons & Dragons. Instead, it is purely a pseudo-literary production, an “in-character” scholarly manuscript from the setting that the monster girls are from, much like the S. Petersen’s guidebooks. Aside from the artwork, which is generally PG-13 (bare female breasts, but no genitalia), the text itself shows a lot of thought and effort that has gone into the monsters, how the change to be part-succubi has effected them, feeding and mating habits (basically the same thing in this case), etc.

The Lovecraftian references are few, and include the iconic D&D monster the Mindflayer, the Wendigo (loosely connected to August Derleth’s interpretation of Ithaqua), the spider-creature Atlach-Nacha (created by Clark Ashton Smith, already the focus of a Japanese game and associated media) and most especially the Shoggoth.

Shoggoth

The interesting thing about the Shoggoth entry is that Kenkou Cross has reinterpreted their position as “servitors” to the Elder Things in At the Mountains of Madness to coincide with the Japanese pop-culture archetype of the maid—in particular, the conception of the “French Maid” outfit popularized in Victorian and Edwardian fiction (and associated pornography) and the act of being subservient in a sense that approaches (and sometimes sublimates into) domination-subjugation fantasies. “Maid-play” need not be violent, as the position can hold a great potential for sexual subtext and power fantasies without crossing the line into rape, but the formal nature of the attire and the potential power imbalance makes maids, butlers, etc. popular characters in Japanese anime and manga.

Shoggoths are slime monsters with amorphous bodies. They were created long ago to serve monsters of the untold nether reaches, but upon acquiring intelligence and emotion with the rise of the current Overlord, they are thought to have fled their once-masters.
—foreword to Monster Girl Encyclopedia Vol. II, 167 

Which makes the Monster Girl Encyclopedia incarnation of the Shoggoth both somewhat kinky, and probably the most sex-positive possible spin on the original source material, is that the (now female) Shoggoth feels the need to fulfill this position, but is not actually enslaved and still holds a great deal of power in the relationship, which is basically entered into of their own will (although the Overlord’s influence certainly gives them a push). Needless to say, the various authors of Monster Girl Encyclopedia-derived dōjinshi take whatever tack fits the needs of their particular work, ranging from the benign monster girlfriend romantic comedy to explicit erotica (within the limits of Japanese censorship laws, for works produced in Japan).

Kenkou Cross doesn’t delve deep into the Mythos in this volume; the Lovecraftian entities are hinted at being separate from many of the other monsters under the Overlord’s direct control, but Cthulhu and Shub-Niggurath are not named explicitly. In much the same way, Dungeons & Dragons has largely eschewed using the Lovecraft Mythos directly since Deities & Demigods (1981), although they have Lovecraftian critters in the form of mindflayers, aboleths, and other “aberrations.” Much of the Monster Girl Encyclopedia world remains a very vague fantasy kitchen sink; quasi-medieval in the Dungeons & Dragons manner with adventurers, quests, etc. It is testament to the wide and pervasive influence of Western (particularly British and American) on Japanese contemporary pop culture.

It might be difficult for some Mythos fans to think of shoggoths as basically sex-obsessed slime-girl maids, but that’s where the route of transmission, derivation, and development sort of become important. Because Kenkou Cross’ interpretation of the Shoggoths, for their setting, is really no different or less than any other interpretation of the Lovecraftian entity, from Robert Bloch’s “Notebook Found In A Deserted House” (1951) to “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear. And the MGE version of shoggoths is not restricted to Japan, but has filtered back into English through translation and derivation. 

Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (魔物娘図鑑 II) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス) was first published in 2016; it was translated and published in English by Seven Seas in 2016.


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