Thus I am coming to be convinced that the erotic instinct is in the majority of mankind far stronger than I could ever imagine without wide reading & observation; that it relentlessly clutches the average person—even of the thinking classes—to a degree which makes its overthrow by higher interests impossible.
This is not unfamiliar territory for Jason Wayne Allen, whose other Mythos works include the Deep One erotic novella Ichthyic in the Afterglow (2015) and “The Horror at the Garrsmouth Orgy” in Strange Versus Lovecraft(2013). Drawing on both the surrealistic atmosphere of bizarro fiction and the rhetoric of gonzo pornography, Allen has crafted a nymphomaniac heroine who is utterly unfazed as one eldritch horror after another crawls out of—and into—her orifices.
Readers might be shocked and appalled at a character who embodies the sex-crazed vapid bimbo or nymphette, may be affronted by Allen’s mockery of the Mythos, even disgusted by crude language and scenes like this:
My legs in the stirrups, I watch the doctor’s head move between my knees. I wonder if the doctor likes the hair I keep down there, that orange patch matching the carpet to my fiery drapes. My hips slowly rise as I feel his latex fingers part my pussy lips. I come hard in the doctor’s chiseled face, and out with my juices comes the shoggoth.
Dr. Wadsworth is a skid mark on the floor of his examination room.
Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 7-8
Shocked, appalled, disgusted—and, hopefully, still turning the pages—is the point. A shoggoth emerging during a nonstandard vaginal exam and squishing the attending physician is played for erotic slapstick, not horror. The whole point of the exercise is to push the limits a little, to pile silly on silly, affront on affront, to say to hell with conventions and expectations and keep transgressing further and further…because it’s a fun ride. Disturbing in parts, borderline obscene in others, but that’s rather the point. If you’re not going push the limits of what the audience finds acceptable, the ne plus ultra, then why write a transgressive erotic Lovecraftian novella anyway?
There is one scene that tip-toes on the very borders of obscenity, if it doesn’t cross directly over it. It involves the mortal remains of Dr. Wadsworth, the gynecologist who was splattered by the shoggoth, reassembled with an aborted fetus and reanimated so that the Frankenstein’s Monster can give Beatrixxx one more going-over before the serum wears off. I’m not sure that one would pass the Miller Test.
In a sense, Shoggoth Butt Invasion is Mythos-as-exploitation. The erotic possibilities of Lovecraft’s Mythos may be theoretically infinite, but in practice most “Lovecraftian” erotica follows familiar beats. It’s a rare work that seeks to be as transgressive, weird, and offensive as most readers and critics imagine Lovecraftian erotica should be. Allen is more dedicated to explicitly Mythos erotica than Cthulhu Scat Hangover & The Innsmouth Porno VHS (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, but doesn’t have the dedication to characterization, setting, and plot that are the hallmarks of Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels such as Trolley No. 1852 and The Dunwich Romance.
Cthulhu lets go another shriek. THis one warbles into almost a human moan.
“Fuck yeah! Iä! Iä Fhtagn that pussy, baby!
Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 42
Future generations will probably never read Shoggoth Butt Invasion. Released as an ebook via AmazonKindle and a slim print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace, the book is no longer available for sale in either format. New Kink Books, the publisher, appears to be defunct. For all that POD publishing and digital publishing have opened up the marketplace to thousands of new titles for readers, it is a very fast-paced and fragile reading ecosystem. Books that don’t sell fall off the backlist as publishers crash or content managers find offense with them, and there are vanishingly few to filter down into the secondary market of used books. Libraries ignore them.
Sometime in the future, perhaps, if a cult following develops the few surviving copies might become collector’s items—or the files might crop up on some sharing site, helping to circulate those networks and hard drives too eventually crap out. Now, more than ever, books that are not read and appreciated in their time are likely destined to be forgotten utterly.
Does it matter? Is Shoggoth Butt Invasion worth preserving?
Who hath desired the Sea—the sight of salt-water unbounded? The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded? The sleek-barrelled swell before storm—grey, foamless, enormous, and growing? Stark calm on the lap of the Line—or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing? His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath all showing— His Sea that his being fulfils? So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise Hill-men desire their Hills!
Rudyard Kipling, “The Sea and the Hills” fromKim(1900)
There are weird things out in the water. We still thrill to every strange creature that washes ashore, or is dredged up from the depths by a storm; the exotic, almost alien lifeforms that we glimpse through submarines or haul up in nets. The great depths of the ocean remain unexplored territory where wonders and terrors may yet reside: shipwrecks, volcanoes, lost cities. Nautical tales often contain elements of mystery, survival, adventure, and horror…and have left their mark on science fiction and fantasy. Krakens, Cthulhu, and Godzilla are all part of the lore and mystery of the ocean; sailors were the first great explorers who have lent their terminology to starships and space marines.
Yet for all the weird inspiration that the seas and oceans of the world have lent to H. P. Lovecraft and other weird writers, actual nautical weird fiction is a distinct and often overlooked subgenre. William Hope Hodgson, who was himself a sailor, was no doubt the greatest master of the weird nautical tale with his Sargasso Sea stories, “The Island of the Ud” (1907), and the unforgettable “The Voice in the Night” (1907), which inspired the Japanese film Matango(マタンゴ, 1963). H. P. Lovecraft would dabble in the genre with “Dagon” and the final chapter in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Frank Belknap Long, Jr. would contribute “The Ocean-Leech” in Weird Tales.
Nautical fiction has not gone extinct, but like railroad fiction and zeppelin stories, cultural and technological shifts have made such tales less common than before. Fewer people travel by water over long distances, with motors and electronics making it easier for ships to travel and stay in communication. Many of the tropes of nautical fiction are readily adapted to space travel stories—Event Horizon(1997) is essentially a ghost ship story set in space—and vice versa, as shown by films like The Abyss(1989) and Underwater (2020), so it might be more accurate to say that nautical fiction is undergoing an evolution as it finds its place in a changing culture.
Sometimes evolution tries something weird.
As the title might indicate, I was informed by a fellow author that every series absolutely must stay within a well-defined genre. Being a contrarian, I promptly set out to write a series in which each subsequent story is set with the same characters in a wildly different genre. I would love to hear your thoughts as I write this series as to which genres I should tackle next. Space Opera? Cozy Mystery? Amish Romance? The fun of me posting series as I write them is that it provides you, the reader, with an opportunity to shape and guide the results!
“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” by Lisa Shea is Book 4 in an ongoing series about Samantha, a Black bisexual woman with a Mythos artifact and dire premonitions of Cthulhu’s emergence, and her friend-and-romantic-interest Gabriel. Strictly speaking, it might be better to regard these as chapters in a serial: while each attempts a distinct genre (1 – Horror, 2 – Mystery, 3 – Science Fiction, 4 – Sea Stories, and 5 – Romance), none of them is quite a standalone story in itself. Nor does the narrative seem complete; presumably more books are forthcoming at some point to carry Samantha and Gabriel’s story onwards, hopefully to some kind of conclusion.
Lisa Shea is a prolific author who is game for anything, and the decision to specifically try and do a nautical story with the Cthulhu Mythos has a lot of potential. While “Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might seem the obvious candidates for maritime adventures, one could just as easily imagine a sailor of any time period coming across a ghost ship crewed by Mi-Go brain canisters, or an Antarctic cruise ship that hits a frozen shoggoth. Sailing has such a rich and fascinating history, has been such a constant in human life even to the present day, that a story could be set almost anywhere or anytime.
Shea was slightly constrained in that she was keeping the same characters and continuing an overall narrative; “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” starts out with them aboard ship, has a bit of light-hearted fun with nautical terminology, and tries to stay on topic…which is kind of where it begins to fall apart.
“I suppose, if I’m going to be reciting lines from doomed naval incidents, the Titanic shouldn’t be my first choice. Seems only two men of color were even on the ship, out of its 2,224 passengers.”
How many people can recite the exact number of passengers on the Titanic off the top of their heads in casual banter? Keeping in mind that at no point in the proceeding does this character demonstrate that she is a Titanic fanatic. The point is driven home in the next paragraph when she begins to go into the details of the Port Chicago disaster, without any real prompting. It is not that this is information she couldn’t know, or have looked up at some point, but for a character that doesn’t know port from starboard it feels very out of character, and almost like the kind of filler used to fluff out historical romance novels for which page count is more important than pacing.
The point of bringing up the Port Chicago disaster specifically appears to be to prompt a discussion between Samantha and Gabriel on the issue of historical racism and the historical racial diversity of sailing crews, e.g.:
“When I was a boy, our neighbor was African-American. Elderly. Wrinkledlike a raisin. He’d served on the U.S.S. Mason in World War II. It said out of Boston, you know. The entire crew was African-Ameircan. At the time, our Navy wouldn’t mix those types with the white sailors.”
His brow furrowed. “Can you imagine, caring about something like that while the Nazis were slaughtering Jewish people by the trian-car-load?”
If this was a single bit of conversation in a longer novel, it might stand out less. Perhaps it might even help establish elements of their characters better and explain their romantic rapport since they both appear to be WWII naval buffs. However, the interaction doesn’t really drive the plot of the chapter or the story forward at all. It’s fascinating as trivia and in another context it might provide an interesting line of inquiry—how did changing racial politics affect the dynamics of sailing ships?—but in this story, the question has to be asked: what is the point? Because neither the Titanic, the Port Chicago disaster, or the U.S.S. Mason figure into Samantha and Gabriel’s little sailing cruise to Nantucket Island.
“Sailing Downwind” is technically a sea story because it takes place at sea, on a small sailboat, and most of the content is explicitly related to sailing in some fashion—even the discussion about why rum and why alcohol is measured in proof, which makes me wish Shea had consulted And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktailsby Wayne Curtis. Yet it feels like a missed opportunity. The sailing is a little too smooth. Samantha never really learns anything about how to help out around the ship in her brief time on it. Long car trips have been planned with more care and contained more incident and excitement. For a single chapter in a longer novel, this wouldn’t be a complaint, but in a chapter trying to bill itself as nautical fiction, it just feels like so much more could have been done with the idea…a storm. Rough waves. Shark attack. Man overboard. Lost at sea. Sneaky Deep One stealing the rum. St. Elmo’s fire. Pirates (off Nantucket? Perhaps not.)
The Cthulhu Mythos material is a continuation of the story from previous books. Readers who skipped those can get the gist of the idea rather quickly; Samantha has a crystal, a piece of alien technology which is somewhere between a palantir and a browser for extraterrestrial webcams, and it’s safer to use it far away from land just in case Cthulhu decides to make a guest appearance.
I murmured, “The Chinese government would love to get their hands on this. It seems the cameras are simply orbs of energy. There’s one currently by a mountain range. I remember it from last time. I can even see how the clouds driftingby get caught in its peaks and drag a bit. It’s quite lovely.”
The Mythos material is slight. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, Lovecraftian mood and ideas are more important than quotes from the Necronomicon and eldritch entities with tongue-twisting names. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that mood either. In trying to make this a “sea story,” “Sailing Downwind” gives short shrift to also being a Mythos story. On paper, there’s no reason why it can’t be both—the nominal reason for the cruise is grounded in using the Mythos device, the Mythos device is used, and Gabriel uses sailing lore to try and interpret some of the information retrieved—and maybe it would have worked, if there was more story there.
If the essential goal of “Sailing Downwind” was to write a work of nautical fiction that mentions Cthulhu in ~25 pages, then it technically fulfills that goal…but only technically. There are some real missed opportunities here, as far as what could have been done with the same characters and the same premise with the same word count. Shea could have made this much more dramatic, much more focused on the sailing experience, emphasized the nautical horrors of the Mythos…but, Shea misses the boat. The overall impression is less of a sea story or a Mythos story, but a bridging chapter between the science fiction chapter (#3) and the sweet romance chapter (#5).
But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.
It began with what has been called Cancel Culture, I suppose. Without much warning, I was subjected to a number of public accusations by various women of my alleged misdeeds. These accusations were largely unsubstantiated and were simply the public revenge of various disgruntled and jilted former lovers and employees.
But the resulting furor was considerable. I was dropped by my long-time publisher, in a very public manner. My book sales, which had been very considerable (and some quite lucrative movie development deals) quickly began to evaporate. […]
I spent a small fortune on lawyers. It was not successful. And in the court of public opinion, I was tried and convicted in short order. And so, it was in the depths of despair that I somehow found a most unusual, a most intriguing, website for someone or something called “The Repairer of Reputation”.
“The Repairer of Reputations” is the first, weirdest, and arguably most important tale in Robert W. Chamber’s 1895 collection The King in Yellow. It is also the hardest to actually follow up: Chambers had set the scene thirty years in his future, in the manner of future war stories like H. G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” (1903). The narrator is unreliable, as is Mr. Wilde, the eponymous Repairer of Reputations, which adds to the mystery and disquiet of the story—how much of this is true, and how much is madness?
Political partisans can be relieved that this book is not about cancel culture, either for or against. The social ostracism is the catalyst for the events of the story, and Woods never goes into vast detail about how true the allegations are or whether the outrage is justified or not. This is, as the story suggests, a transgender tale: the way that the protagonist’s reputation is repaired involves becoming someone else.
Impossibly, my transformation was complete. This was monstrously alarming, of course, but Tanya assured me that this need not be a permanent change. For my own personal reasons, this felt deeply ironic to me. At the same time, deeply erotic.
Since my adolescence, I had been obsessed with the idea of a male being transformed into a female. And since my teens, I had compulsion to periodically dress in the clothes of a female. This has been my most closely guarded secret, of course. But it may help explain what happened next.
Fantasy gender-bending stories are nothing new. H. P. Lovecraft had body-swapping in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Bergier used Mythos magic in “Celui qui suscitait l’effroi…” (1958), John Blackburn had a surgical solution in Dagger of Blood (1997), and so on. The method varied, but the result was often the same: a gender transition that was often swift and total. The reality of transition is much longer, messier, and more difficult, involving various degrees of psychiatric evaluation and therapy, hormone treatments, and possibly surgery—and accompanied by legal and bureaucratic hurdles, healing times, side effects from medication, and social ostracism.
Transgender fantasies cut past many of the real-life difficulties to focus on the drama—and sometimes wonder—of the transformation itself, and in many ways are probably closer to transformation erotica than to any desire to live vicariously through someone else’s transition. In this respect, many such “gender bender” tales are closer to a fetishization of the idea of gender transition, titillating readers with the taboo of crossing that imaginary definitive line between male and female, rather than any effort to create an authentic transgender character.
Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale is not King in Yellow erotica in the usual sense, however. There are a few scattered erotic scenes in the book, but those hoping for a version of the King in Yellow to appear with a three-foot penis will be sadly disappointed. Fantasy transition tales like this one have a body of tropes of their own, involving how willing the participant is, how they come to accept or reject their new gender, etc.; if the physical transition is swift, the mental transition and acceptance of new gender—and often new sexuality—takes longer, and Diane Woods plays with some of the familiar tropes, but shies away from going into lengthy and explicit sex scenes as the protagonist, now a woman, has to find out if she is a lesbian or bisexual.
While the premise of the story is focused on the repairing of the protagonist’s reputation, and the gender transition is a part of that, the plot gets a little messier. Rather than keep strictly to the Yellow Mythos, Wood brings in elements of the Cthulhu Mythos including Randi Carter (a transitioned Randolph Carter) and Nyarlathotep; the relatively magical physical gender transition is accompanied by a science fiction hypnosis/brainwashing device that facilitates the mental transition and sets up a somewhat Twilight Zone-esque ending. It is far more Mythos material than is strictly necessary for the plot, and gives the story a bit of a fanfiction feel which it didn’t need to accomplish some of the plot twists—but some of the twists themselves aren’t bad.
It is important to note that Devil’s Due does not tackle a difficult subject via the medium of the Mythos in the manner of “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka; that is, Woods is not using the story to address any social theme or element in Chambers or Lovecraft’s fiction, or any such theme or element in their personal prejudices. Devil’s Due is a transformation story that uses the Mythos for inspiration and aesthetics, but there’s not any deeper message about how Lovecraft felt about gender or how Chambers depicted gender in his stories.
Which is fair: not every latter-day Mythos story has to be a commentary on what has gone before. Devil’s Due is a competently-written fantasy transformation story; the riff off of “The Repairer of Reputations” helps it stand out from the dozens of other titles involving gender transformation on the Amazon ebook stocklist, and that is no doubt the point. If anything, it perhaps reads a bit closer to some of the older, less sexually explicit transvestite and transgender stories edited by Sandy Thomas.
Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale (2021) by Diane Woods is available on Amazon Kindle, it was briefly available as a paperback.
Lavinia was one who would be apt to mutter such things, for she was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys, and which were fast falling to pieces with age and worm-holes. She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her. The remote farmhouse had always been feared because of Old Whateley’s reputation for black magic, and the unexplained death by violence of Mrs. Whateley when Lavinia was twelve years old had not helped to make the place popular. Isolated among strange influences, Lavinia was fond of wild and grandiose day-dreams and singular occupations; nor was her leisure much taken up by household cares in a home from which all standards of order and cleanliness had long since disappeared.
There is a small cycle of stories involving Lavinia Whateley, spinning out from “The Dunwich Horror.” W. H. Pugmire & Robert M. Price suggested her survival in “The Tree House” in The Dunwich Cycle; Alex Picchetti went into explicit detail about her conception of the twins in “When The Stars Come” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica; Edward Lee was no less explicit in describing Lavinia’s relationship with her sons in The Dunwich Romance.
Yet these stories are all more or less unsympathetic—perhaps not surprising as they were all written by men, and accept that Lavinia was a more or less willing participant in the events leading up to the Dunwich Horror; a cultist who finally grew afraid of her children and quietly disappeared off the page when her part in the story was over. Few of them focus on what it was like to be Lavinia Whateley. Albinos don’t have it easy in life, even when they’re not uneducated and living in rural poverty under the will of a demented wizard intent on using her as a broodmare for a pair of cosmic horror antichrists. There is little of the realism of that hard life in their characterizations. As Smith puts it:
Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.
Lovecraft’s model of Lavinia Whateley was Mary from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”—a young woman raised to be the subject of an experiment by an older, learned man, who gives birth to an enfant terrible, inhuman in aspect. Mary is barely there in Machen’s story, and Lovecraft gave her both more background and characterization—but not very positive characterization, and even the description of Lavinia is unflattering. Lavinia was “a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five,” a “slatternly, crinkly-haired albino,” with “misproportioned arms” and the Whateley chinlessness.
Some of Lovecraft’s descriptions are particular: why the misproportioned arms? Why an albino? Why crinkly hair? Readers and writers might gloss some of these: making Lavinia an albino helped to heighten the contrast with her “black brat,” Wilbur Whateley; crinkly hair can be a sign of dryness, suggesting she doesn’t wash it, which would go along with the idea that Lavinia was “slatternly” or unkempt, dirty, a common characteristic of poor whites in Lovecraft’s fiction. Yet Farah Rose Smith looked at these pieces of the puzzle and went a different way…
Ma was born in the back of a show wagon to a dyin’ hottentot (that’s what Barnum called ’em, she said, but said she’d slap me cross the cheeks top and bottom if I ever said it myself) and “New England’s tallest Negro.” When she was a little gilr, they told her to get out when she could, or else Barnum’d put her on display like them and even take out her body parts fer exhibition after she was dead.
This puts, to pun a phrase, an entirely different complexion on the matter. Lovecraft gives no attention to Lavinia Whateley’s maternal line except to say that Mrs. Whateley died violently when the girl was twelve years old. He has nothing to say about Wilbur Whateley’s maternal grandparents. Human zoos and human oddities were real—and often very exploitative—enterprises in the late 19th and early 20th century, as famously depicted in the 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks. Making Lavinia mixed-race highlights a heritage of discrimination…and a life she didn’t want for her sons.
Like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lavinia Rising is an alternate point of view for “The Dunwich Horror,” but largely follows the plot of Lovecraft’s story. This changes the story from a horror to a tragedy; readers know what is going to happen, more or less, and the difference is that we get Lavinia’s point of view as she grows up, dealing with her illnesses and disabilities, the discrimination and misogyny of a rural New England town and a patriarchal household ruled by a twisted madman that sees her as no more than a means to an end. There is little happiness in that life, and we know how it is going to end.
Yet what Farah Rose Smith offers readers is one thing more: what happens after the end. A brief epilogue to “The Dunwich Horror” which focuses on her actions to understand what happened to her children, as opposed to what happened to Mamie Bishop or Wilbur Whateley. The domestic drama and very human grief may be completely counter to Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror…but that is rather the point. Lovecraft did enough damage to Lavinia’s reputation; it’s time to hear her own story in her own words, and her point of view makes her an outsider in her own family of outsiders.
The only book really comparable to Lavinia Rising in the corpus of weird fiction is Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz—and while the stories are very different in how they turn out, there is a similarity in that both of these works revisit women in weird fiction who have been ill-served by the rather patriarchial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Both Machen and Lovecraft were fully capable of writing fiction from the point of view of women, and capable too of imagining them as sympathetic and intelligent beings—Machen’s “The White People” and “The Man of Stone” (1932) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft showcase that, at least a little—but they rarely did so. In focusing on their supernatural horrors, Lovecraft and Machen largely overlook or choose not to detail the domestic horrors and psychological horrors of those women’s lives, except by inference…or, in the case of Lavinia, a single desperate conversation:
Through all the years Wilbur had treated his half-deformed albino mother with a growing contempt, finally forbidding her to go to the hills with him on May-Eve and Hallowmass; and in 1926 the poor creature complained to Mamie Bishop of being afraid of him.
“They’s more abaout him as I knows than I kin tell ye, Mamie,” she said, “an’ naowadays they’s more nor what I know myself. I vaow afur Gawd, I dun’t know what he wants nor what he’s a-tryin’ to dew.”
Smith retains Lovecraft’s dialogue verbatim, but expands on the scene and the thoughts and events behind them. Like Rabinowitz, the main point of departure is the part of the story where the woman died or disappeared—and their survival marks the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This is all about the parts of the story the reader never got to read about…and, it has to be said, Smith does it well. It is a compelling story, and if there are a few inconsistencies here and there, those might as easily be chalked up to an unreliable narrator and unreliable transcription as error.
Plus, we get to learn the name of Wilbur’s brother.
They had done the same thing on other planets; having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs under hypnotic influence and thereby forming ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community. These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the “shoggoths” in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.
Slavery was a part of Lovecraft’s heritage. While his immediate family never owned any slaves or showed any inclination to, the oldest of his aunts could remember the American Civil War and emancipation; Lovecraft himself was well aware of the part slavery had played in his own native Rhode Island, and liked to remind correspondents that his ancestor Robert Hazard had left 133 slaves in his will.
When Lovecraft wrote his alien entities, the two most detailed civilizations—the Old Ones in Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness and the people of K’n-yan in The Mound—they were both defined by slave ownership. Why isn’t exactly clear; the exact forms of slavery involved were both like and unlike the chattel slavery of the American system or the slavery practiced by civilizations like the Romans in antiquity. There was no way for slaves in Lovecraft’s stories to earn freedom, and in fact much of the economics and social ramifications of slavery are unexamined…except for one: as in the antebellum South, the Old Ones and K’n-yans lived in the shadow of a slave revolt.
Victor LaValle’s “Up from Slavery” is a riff on an uncommon theme; a companion piece in many ways to “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear. In both stories, the experience of Black people in America, who deal every day with the legacy of slavery, draws parallels with the plight of the shoggoths.
“You were born to serve,” he said. “It’s genetic.”
In many ways, the slavery of the shoggoths is closer to that of replicants in Blade Runner than to what is described in the first chapter of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery(1901)—but the overall morality is identical. Whether a sentient being is kidnapped and forced into service, or grown in a lab and made to serve, the end result is the same. Because of this, slavery narratives work for shoggoth characters. No one has written Uncle Tekeli-Li’s Cabin yet, and maybe never will, but there is real empathy for shoggoth characters who run away from slavery, or fight back to avoid being returned to a state of slavery.
That is important because in a lot of ways the protagonist Simon Dust is unlikable. He carries a big chip on his shoulder, and not without reason. The world through his eyes is stacked against him because of his race. It colors his interaction with others, and his response to little things…people not sitting next to him on the train, muted anger at discovering he has a father after 29 years as an orphan who grew up in foster care, the white neighbor’s disbelief when he shows up. It is familiar territory; LaValle explored the Black experience in his novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) as well, and he is excellent at presenting an individual who has labored all their life under a sword of Damocles, and has to deal with a thousand little microaggressions every day or face the consequences.
It is weird to think that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) were contemporaries…but their lives did overlap, even if they did not intersect. LaValle’s use of Washington’s autobiography helps ground Dust’s experience, and that of the shoggoths. Up from slavery shows that being born into slavery may only be the first chapter of someone’s life, even if the experiences and scars of that first chapter stay with them. Likewise, we may say that though Lovecraft may have written slavery into his Mythos, that too is only the first chapter in the saga of the shoggoths, and there is much more that may be written.
While men are thinking of the planets, other worlds may be thinking of us. At least the curious phenomena of that old New England house suggested that possibility… An unforgettable new story of uneathly wonder by two masters of the science-fiction terror tale.
Epigraph to “The Murky Glass” in Saturn: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1957
August Derleth was one of the original creators of what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. His contributions started while Lovecraft was alive with “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932) and “The Thing That Walked on the Wind” (1933). After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937 and the creation of Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s work, August Derleth would continue to write a number of tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in the Lovecraftian vein. These were not written immediately with an eye toward filling out the Lovecraft collections or even his own anthologies, but for sale to magazines, mostly Weird Tales, and published over a series of years. The stories can be divided into three groups:
Older stories written with Mark Schorer that were not published until later (“Spawn of the Maelstrom” (1939) and “The Evil Ones” (1940, later reprinted as “The Horror from the Depths”).
Pulpy horror tales (“The Return of Hastur” (1939), “Passing of Eric Holm” (1939), “The Sandwin Compact” (1940), “Ithaqua” (1941), “Beyond the Threshold” (1941), “The Dweller in Darkness” (1944), “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Whippoorwill in the Hills” (1948), “The House in the Valley” (1953), “The Seal of R’lyeh” (1957, also as “The Seal of the Damned”), and the Trail of Cthulhu series (“The Trail of Cthulhu” (1944, also as “The House on Curwen Street”), “The Watcher from the Sky” (1945), “The Testament of Clairmont Boyd” (1949, also as “The Gorge Beyond Salapunco”), “The Keeper of the Key” (1951), and “The Black Island” (1952)).
“Posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft: The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), “The Survivor” (1954), “Wentworth’s Day” (1957), “The Peabody Heritage” (1957), “The Gable Window” (1957, also as “The Murky Glass”), “The Ancestor” (1957), “The Shadow Out of Space” (1957), “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1957), “The Shuttered Room” (1959), “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” (1959), “Witches’ Hollow” (1962), “The Shadow in the Attic” (1964), “The Dark Brotherhood” (1966), “The Horror from the Middle Span” (1967), “Innsmouth Clay” (1971), and “The Watchers Out of Time” (1974); and Robert E. Howard: “The House in the Oaks” (1971).
The individual merit of these stories varies considerably, but it should be apparent that taken together they represent a substantial body of “Lovecraftian” fiction: 34 short stories, novelettes, and a novel—and Lovecraft’s own published fiction only amounts to 65 stories (plus ~33 revisions and collaborations like “Four O’Clock” (1949), “The Curse of Yig” (1929),“The Night Ocean” (1936), etc.)…and Derleth had, as well as his fictional input to the Mythos, a strong editorial influence on how Lovecraft’s fiction was interpreted, through his introductions to various anthologies and collections of Lovecraft’s work, analyses of his fiction, press releases etc. This is why after Derleth’s death in 1971 there was pushback from fans like Richard L. Tierney in “The Derleth Mythos”—and lent impetus to a Lovecraft purest movement in publishing and scholarship.
Much of the animus against Derleth is centered on his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft. To better understand the reasoning behind these, it is important to understand what Derleth publicly claimed and presented these stories as:
Not for twelve years has the byline of the late, great Howard Phillips Lovecraft appeared on any new work–and it appears now only because, among the papers of the late R. H. Barlow are found Lovecraft’s notes and/or beginnings for the seven stories which go to make up this collection–all now completed by August Derleth, just as he completed Lovecraft’s unfinished novel, The Lurker at the Threshold.
Here are seven tales–two novelettes and five shorter stories–which belong to virtually every period of Lovecraft’s work–from the early fantasies (The Lamp of Alhazred), through the New England pieces (Wentworth’s Day and The Peabody Heritage) to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Gable Window, The Shadow out of Space, The Survivor). Taken together, these seven stories are a nostalgic backward look to the macabre world in which H. P. Lovecraft was supreme.
These are tales of terrifying witchcraft, of cosmic horror, of quaint magic, such as only H. P. Lovecraft could have conceived. Here in these pages Great Cthulhu walks again, the Dunwich-Arkham country lives once more, and, in a final allegory, Lovecraft himself is portrayed in a quasi-autobiographical manner.
August Derleth’s completion of these stories was a labor of love. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has so closely emulated the Lovecraft style as he–as these stories testify.
The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap
Among the papers of the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most compelte was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
The works in The Survivor and Others and the novel The Lurker at the Threshold were all presented as “unfinished” works, or works built up from Lovecraft’s notes. The truth was quite different: Lovecraft left no such incomplete stories. What he did leave was a commonplace book containing various bare ideas for stories, some fragments of prose, and a body of correspondence that included Lovecraft’s dreams and other ideas for stories never written during his lifetime. From these, Derleth wrote his “posthumous collaborations”—some of them (“The Lamp of Alhazred”) contained some genuine text from Lovecraft, but most of them were little more than stories vaguely suggested from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, as close to pure Derleth as most of Lovecraft’s “ghostwriting” efforts were pure Lovecraft. Derleth’s marketing of these works as “by Lovecraft and Derleth” was seen by some as dishonest…and worse than that, those that took Derleth at his word often took the works to be primarily Lovecraft’s, such as David Punter’s influential textbook The Literature of Terror (first edition 1980, second edition 1996).
It should be noted, however, thas as much as the publication of these stories always emphasized Lovecaft’s name and contribution, this was first and foremost a marketing gimmick. In private, just as Lovecraft would acknowledge his own contributions in his revision and ghostwriting work, Derleth would frankly acknowledge the full extant of his authorship:
[…] & Ballantine’s paperback of THE SURVIVOR & OTHERS (emphasizing Lovecraft, understandably, over Derleth, who did 97% of the writing) […]
The pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of and contributions to the Mythos has led to his stories being largely neglected by scholars and fans. Yet many of Derleth’s stories are worth at least a little study, and some understanding of how and why they were written and published can give help elucidate the picture of Mythos publishing post-Lovecraft.
As should be clear, August Derleth didn’t start out writing “posthumous collaborations” as soon as Lovecraft’s corpse was cold. His first was The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), which has the distinction of being the first Mythos novel. Including Lovecraft’s name in this work can be barely defended—the ~50,000 word novel contains two unrelated fragments from Lovecraft’s papers, “The Round Tower” and “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England, of Daemons in No Humane Shape” which come to ~1,200 words—but it is clear that Derleth is using Lovecraft’s name predominantly for marketing purposes, and does not assay another “posthumous collaboration” until late 1953 or early 1954:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready–
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more–or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
By 1954, Weird Tales under editor Dorothy McIlwraith was on its last legs, having switched to bimonthly and a digest format, and even re-instated reprints to cut costs—which included reprinting some of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth was a loyal contributor and could have resurrected the “posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft” gimmick in an effort to help save the magazine—or, considering that Derleth had married in 1953 and his wife was pregnant, perhaps he simply needed the money. In either case, it was too little, too late to save Weird Tales, which folded with the September 1954 issue, before any of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” except “The Survivor” (WT July 1954) could be published.
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Despite McIlwraith’s hopes, no one picked up publication of Weird Tales, and August Derleth was left with a handful of “posthumous collaborations” and very few markets in which to publish them. Eventually, Derleth would publish these stories through Arkham House in a volume titled The Survivor and Others (1957)…yet there is an interesting note in that book regarding one of the stories:
The Gable Window, copyright 1957, by Candar Publishing Company, Inc., (as The Murky Glass), for Saturn, May 1957.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
Derleth had managed to get “The Gable Window” published, albeit under a different title—which is no great surprise, many editors change titles to suit their tastes, and some editors go further: they might break up or combine chapters and paragraphs, revise wording, even excise extraneous text or revise endings. Lovecraft decried these practices and would in later years be adamant that the editor not even change a comma, but Derleth was probably more practical and less particular: weird fiction was, for Derleth, often more of a potboiler effort than a major form of personal expression as it was with Lovecraft.
As it happens, a close (line-by-line) comparison between the Saturn text of “The Murky Glass” and the Survivor text of “The Gable Window” shows a number of differences between the two texts, most relatively minor. Without access to surviving drafts, it’s difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of revision or editorial interference, but by looking at a handful of the differences we might get an idea of the editorial thought behind those changes—and this is especially the case since “The Gable Window” text in The Survivor and Others is the basis for all other publications of the text. “The Murky Window” has never been reprinted as-is.
“The Murky Glass”
“The Gable Window”
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor. To tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and cold, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SA103)
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor, for to tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SO79-80)
One of the characteristics of Derleth’s pastiche style of Lovecraft is long, run-on sentences; a tendency that is more marked when sentences (and paragraphs) that were separate in “The Murky Glass” are conjoined in “The Gable Window.” Whether this was a result of an editor chopping up Derleth’s initial draft, or Derleth splicing together things to make longer sentences and paragraphs when preparing it for book publication is unclear, and either is likely. Derleth’s choice to omit “cold” from the description of the gable room probably reflects that he never refers to the room as particularly cold in the remainder of the story; a little clean-up.
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession of the house. (SA105)
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession. (SO82)
Pulp writers typically had to shave words from a manuscript to meet tight wordcount limits, so the question here is: did Derleth include “of the house” originally and decide to excise it as unnecessary in “The Gable Window?” Or did the editors of Saturn think the line was unclear and add “of the house” to clarify?
Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, and these are as follows:
One: All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. Two: All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. Three: The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SA108)
“Dear Fred,” he wrote, “The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, as follows:
“1) All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. “2) All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. “3) The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
“You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question…” (SO86)
The most notable changes between the two texts are format. The Saturn editors preferred italics to quotation marks, and spelling out words and months to abbreviations, The Survivor text is pithier. Which is better for reading is a bit of an open question; as a digest Saturn had to be divided into two columns per page, which might encourage shorter paragraphs, more frequent breaks, and the more streamlined experience italics give…or perhaps Derleth changed his mind.
What was I to make of these curious instructions? (SA108)
What was I to make of these strange instructions? (SO86)
Case in point, “curious” and “strange” in this context are basically synonymous, so the changing from one to the other is essentially down to personal preference rather than any kind of artistic or editorial justification. These are the kind of changes in word choice that you might expect to see either from an editor determined to change something or a writer that just liked to fiddle.
Most of the differences in “The Murky Glass” and “The Gable Window” are like that: formatting, word choice, a little cutting or rearranging, mostly in The Survivor and Others text. There are a handful of typos as well: “scratching” (“Murky”) becomes “cratching” (“Gable”); “Shanteks” (“Murky”) becomes “Shantaks” (“Gable”), “myths” (“Murky”) becomes “Mythos” (“Gable”), “subterranean” (“Murky”) becomes “subterrene” (“Gable”) and other bits like that. There is one rather significant and noticeable difference, however, in a particular passage:
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the . Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SA109)
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SO87)
Either Derleth decided to insert several eldritch tomes in “The Gable Window,” or whoever was setting text or type for “The Murky Glass” dropped a line; given the odd period right before Celano, I lean toward the latter. Little printing errors like that just happen sometimes.
Even taken all together, the sum of these small textual differences do not substantially impact the story; this is not a Mythos equivalent of the Wicked Bible, but it shows that you should not take a given version of a text for granted. How do you know that the text you are reading in a Lovecraft book is what Lovecraft set down—or is by Lovecraft at all? How many editors have had their hands on it? Textual errors and variations have propped up and been carried forward…sometimes for decades and through multiple versions. In many online versions of “Herbert West—Reanimator” for example, you will find the text prefaced with a spurious quote from Dracula—which was not in Lovecraft’s original text or any major subsequent printing; it appears to have been added on to a freely available text on the internet sometime in the 2000s and to have spread from there, even into print editions that use Wikisource as their source.
You might well imagine how a reader in the 1950s might have felt as they sat down with their “new” book of Lovecraft stories, and wondered to themselves: did Lovecraft write this?
The point is all the more cogent because “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” is one of Derleth’s most poorly-received “posthumous collaborations.” We’ve focused so far on textual criticism and publishing history, but we haven’t discussed the content of the story or how it fits into the larger body of Mythos fiction. To understand that, let’s rewind back to how this story came to be.
After writing “The Survivor” (which was based on some actual notes Lovecraft left for a story of that name), Derleth turned to Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, which had been preserved by R. H. Barlow, for inspiration. Two plot-germs probably inspired “The Gable Window”:
Something seen at Oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house. (29)
Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harbored devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilization. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it. (41)
Derleth identified the second entry (“Pane of…”) as the genesis for the story in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959); Derleth scholar John Haefele adds the other (“Something seen…”) as a probable inspiration in A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 224, and I have to agree (the distinction between “Oriel” and “Gable” in this case being close enough for amateurs to mistake one for the other). The story is, although this is not immediately apparent, a tie-in to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” since the protagonist’s uncle is Henry Akeley—Derleth would be the first pasticheur to exploit genealogical connections, adding cousins to Lovecraft’s family trees in stories like “The Shuttered Room,” though far from the last.
The set-up for the plot is familiar: a relation has died, and the heir must goes to the old house and finds they’ve inherited a bit of a Mythos mess. Lovecraft himself never used this exact formulation, though “The Moon-Bog” and “The Rats in the Walls” both involve an heir rebuilding an ancestral manse or castle. Derleth had already written something similar in “The Return of Hastur” and “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” and would use the premise again in “The Seal of R’lyeh,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “The Shuttered Room,” “The Shadow on the Attic,” “The Horror from the Middle Span,” and “The Watchers out of Time.” It is ultimately a variation on the haunted house tale, or even of the Gothic inheritance of an ancestral house or castle, and there are a million different variations on that familiar theme, and Derleth was well-versed in such tales.
The pseudo-haunting takes its time to develop. While not every “posthumous collaboration” that Derleth wrote was explicitly part of the Mythos, “The Gable Window” was intended to be such a story, and so Derleth is careful to place it not far from Dunwich and Arkham, to drop references to Miskatonic University, and to build up to the succession of revelations. His prose doesn’t try to capture Lovecraft’s more ultraviolet style, and there is at least one passage which is very un-Lovecraftian:
No matter how I tried, I failed utterly to catch any sight of the cat, though I was disturbed in this fashion fully half a dozen times, until I was so upset that, had I caught sight of the cat, I would probably have shot it.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
It is always difficult to tell with Derleth whether certain details are drawn from his great familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence and life and how many are original to him. The name of the cat “Little Sam,” for example, recalls “Little Sam Perkins,” one of the neighborhood cats that Lovecraft doted on while he lived at 66 College St. If Derleth had incorporated some of Lovecraft’s material from his letters about Sam Perkins, we could say for certain, but Derleth didn’t. Instead, Little Sam occupies largely the same purpose in the text as the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” does, as an animal attuned to the strange dangers in the house.
As the story progresses, Derleth presents his interpretation of the Mythos. Keep in mind, “The Gable Window” was originally intended for magazine publication, and not necessarily to an audience that would be immediately familiar with any of the preceeding Mythos fiction, so this is a point he tends to bring up more often and more explicitly in his 1940s and 1950s fiction to introduce it to new audiences; when reading chunks of his fiction at once, it can get a bit repetitive:
It was the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness, or at least, so I took it to be. Did it matter whether you called it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones—the idiot god, Azathoth, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity; Yog-Sothoth, the all-in-one and one-in-all, subject to neither the laws of time nor of space, co-existent with all time and con-terminous with space; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Ancient Ones; Great Cthulhu, waiting to rise again from hidden R’lyeh in the depths of the sea; the unspeakable Hastur, Lord of the Interstellar Spaces; Shub-Niggurath, the black goat of the woods with a thousand young?
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
Derleth was capable of subtlety in his fiction and the slow and careful development of mood, but this recital or regurgitation of blasphemous names and casting the whole implicitly complex artificial mythology into a Manichaean dichtomy is not an example of it. This tendency to cram everything into a story is very fannish, but in the case of this story it also serves as build-up for the next section: the reader is basically given a crash course on the Mythos so that they can be prepped to see where the story is heading. Mythos fans can pat themselves on the back for catching the references, and new readers can at least sort of follow along.
In portraying the Mythos this way, Derleth also repeats many of the inherent prejudices in Mythos fiction in brief and in miniature. For example:
There were also more recognizable human beings, however distorted—stunted and dwarfed Oreintals living in a cold place, to judge by their attire, and a race born of miscegenation, with certain characteristics of the batrachian beings, yet unmistakably human.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 90
The “stunted and dwarfed Orientals” are probably the Tcho-Tcho; the “race born of msicegenation” probably the inhabitants of Innsmouth. It’s notable that Derleth is more explicit in his language here than Lovecraft ever was in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and he gets even more explicit on the next page when he writes: “Deep Ones together with humans of partly similar origin: hybrid white” (91). The dry technical nature of the language robs the idea of Innsmouth hybrids of their mystery and mystique; he might as well be describing a creole colony…and that kind of misses the entire point of Lovecraft’s story. “Innsmouth” presented miscegnation (without ever using the word) as the intended accepted explanation for why the people of Innsmouth were hated and feared by their neighbors; racial discrimination was the red herring that concealed the much weirder revelation that the horror wasn’t a mixed race Pacific Islander or Asian community, but something altogether less homo sapiens.
Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, there isn’t an excess of plot. The use of the journal excerpts allows Derleth to indulge himself a bit in describing exotic landscapes and beings, and to build mood. The result is something of an orgy of evidence for the Mythos, touching on many different entities and places, some of which would be unfamiliar to Mythos fans. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain laziness to Derleth’s approach. Why would the words that activate the glass from Leng be “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn?” That is the motto of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu,” but here Derleth uses it where another writer of a more mundane demonology might have used “abracadabra.”
Pedantic nitpicking aside, “The Gable Window” comes to a well-telegraphed end…and a relatively light legacy. Readers of “The Murky Glass” in Saturn might have been intrigued by the idea of an extraterrestrial glass that showed alien worlds, which has had its fair number of variations in fantasy already (e.g. “The Wonderful Window” by Lord Dunsany), but Mythos fans took very little notice of it. Derleth introduces the Sand-Dwellers in this story, for example, but never used or referenced them elsewhere again, and very few other authors have picked up the threads of this story (most notably Adam Niswander in his 1998 novel The Sand Dwellers). The biggest impact the story had has been on the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, which gladly incorporated both the Glass from Leng and the Sand-Dwellers into its version of the Mythos, and has continued to make some small use of them in every edition since.
While it is impossible to say if Derleth himself was unsatisfied with “The Gable Window” as written, but there is the suggestion that he might have been inspired to make another attempt:
This glass also has attributes similar to the tower window in The Lurker at the Threshold, which Derleth derived from Lovecraft’s “The Rose Window” prose fragment. Referring to the fragment as the “notes relative to the mysterious window or ‘carved surface with convex glass circle seven inches in diameter in centre’ related primarily to a story to be set on ‘Central Hill, Kingsport’ in the ancient house of ‘Edward Orne,'” Derleth admits how, “This story remains in essence to be written, since not enough was borrowed from this set of notes to invalidate a second story; and I mean to write it, possibly in novel length, time and circumstances permitting, under the title The Watchers Out of Time” (“Unfinished Manuscripts”).
Derleth would not live long enough to finish “The Watchers Out of Time,” but it may well be that the fragment of a story he did write owes something to “The Gable Window,” since he felt he hadn’t quite exhausted the possibilities of the glass from Leng. One had to wonder if the massive spread of televisions in United States homes after World War II played any influence in what was, in many ways, an eldritch audiovisual receiver.
Taken as a whole, “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” represents much of what has soured Derleth’s reputation among Lovecraft fans and scholars: it is neither a terrible or a terrific weird tale, but a relatively average story that remixes some very familiar tropes and adds a smorgasboard of Mythos references, in addition to a somewhat preachy version of Derleth’s particular take on the Mythos (although it leaves out the elemental associations). Perhaps most damning, in every publication it was presented as a joint work with Lovecraft, who had nothing to do with it. Derleth was a competent weird fictioneer, and that’s what this story was intended to be when it was written with Weird Tales in mind: the Mythos as a reliable product, with Lovecraft’s name as a marketing draw.
Which is probably the most damning thing. Lovecraft was an auteur who took painstaking efforts with his stories, and whether or not you like his person or his prose, his stories represent a great deal of work from the initial plotting to the craft of writing. Derleth, by comparison, was much more restricted in the time and energy he could or would devote to his weird fiction, and while the stories might have been passable to pulp audiences in the 1950s, they are consistently outshone by Lovecraft’s actual fiction, and Derleth’s conception of the Mythos is shown to be much more limited and imperfect than that of his friend…as though viewed through a murky glass.
“The Murky Glass” was published in Saturn May 1957, and was not published again under that title. “The Gable Window” has been published in multiple anthologies and collections of Lovecraft and Derleth’s Mythos fiction, including The Watchers Out of Time (2008, Del Rey).
An often underestimate influence on Lovecraft’s genre is the immensely popular and long time market-sayer, the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, published by Chaosium, Inc. […] The game’s influence extended further than just the gaming community, for Lovecraftian and Cthulhu Mythos authors were quick to discover that Chaosium’s sourcebooks provided a wealth of information, by categorizing and defining Lovecraft’s visions. Soon the game became an encyclopedia, the first point of call for all things Cthulhuoid. This influence is so profound, that new creations which first appeared in the Call of Cthulhu game now appear regularly in the fiction of modern day Lovecraftian authors.
—David Conyers, “Introduction” to Cthulhu’s Dark Cultsviii
Tabletop roleplaying games involve many different types of writing and editing. If you were to sit down and write a new game ex nihilo, you would need to first engage in some top-down game design, probably starting with a concept or pitch for the game—who are the player characters and what do they do?
In Dungeons & Dragons, you are an adventurer and you go on adventures! In Shadowrun, you are a shadowrunner, a mercenary criminal in a fantasy cyberpunk future, and you go on shadowruns, which are illegal jobs that can range from smuggling to murder-for-hire to corporate espionage…only with dragons and elves. In Vampire: the Masquerade, you are a vampire and navigate the complex politics of undead society while striving to sustain yourself and control the beast within. In Call of Cthulhu, you are an investigator and you solve cases and delve into mysteries.
The pitch often but not always contains the basic premise of the setting. Dungeons & Dragons is largely setting agnostic; while the default setting is a quasi-medieval fantasy, the basic rules can (and have) been adapted to many different settings, and players are quite capable of creating their own. For games with specific settings like Shadowrun, a certain amount of setting information has to be brainstormed and written so that players know where the action is taking place. Games set in a historical period of the real world like Call of Cthulhu have a distinct advantage in this case because a great deal of raw setting information is widely available—all you have to do is pick up a history book or delve through old newspaper archive and you can find whatever facts you need for playing in the 1920s or 1890s.
Additional writing involves mechanics—the game’s systems, the mathematical and conceptual specifics that indicate how certain actions like combat or magic are to be resolved, tracked, and sometimes abstracted. It isn’t always possible or desirable, for example, to track how much blood a character loses if they get stabbed; the player marks off a couple hit points on their character sheet and moves on. All of that, and how it integrates into the setting and the gameplay experience, is a matter of game design and editing—complicated stuff!
The last, but not the least, bit of work that goes into a tabletop roleplaying game is what most readers would recognize as narrative fiction: short stories and short-shorts which are set in the setting and are told from the perspective of characters that are in that setting. All the rest of the game give the readers—the prospective players of the game—tools and references so that they can play, but the narrative fiction is what sells the tone and style of the setting, free from any considerations of play.
Most games have to create this from nothing. Dungeons & Dragons took inspiration from Robert E. Howard, J. R. R. Tolkein, Fritz Leiber, etc. in creating the game, but none of those authors was specifically writing D&D fiction. Shadowrun added in cyberpunk influences from William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Pat Cadigan, but again, those cyberpunk authors weren’t specifically writing Shadowrun stories—they were writing their own stories from which the Shadowrun authors took inspiration, and then the Shadowrun authors wrote their own stories.
With Call of Cthulhu…the lines are a bit blurrier. What exactly is the difference between a Cthulhu Mythos story, and a Call of Cthulhu story? Is there even a difference?
Unlike Dungeons & Dragons or Shadowrun, Call of Cthulhu was specifically inspired by the body of Cthulhu Mythos fiction created by Lovecraft, his contemporaries, and all those who came thereafter. So while D&D wasn’t designed to let player characters actually journey around Tolkien’s Middle Earth or Howard’s Hyborian Age, Call of Cthulhu was designed for player characters to be able to visit Lovecraft’s Innsmouth or Howard’s Stregoicavar, to read the Necronomicon and, if they were very unlucky, to even catch a glimpse of Cthulhu. In that sense, yes, all Call of Cthulhu fiction is part of the Mythos by default—because the game is about playing in that Mythos setting.
However, writing for roleplaying games has very different goals than most narrative fiction. Lovecraft & co. were not obliged to keep any strong continuity between their disparate productions, or to go into detail on the people, places, and objects in those stories. Lovecraft’s map of Arkham and Howard’s essay on the Hyborian Age were, in the 1930s, anomalously deep background for the period, and much of that data never made it into any story—but for roleplaying games, that level of detail is relatively common and expected. More, where earlier Mythos writers were free to be loose or even contradictory with their artificial mythology and how magic worked, in a game things typically have to be more concrete—or at least, the format of the game encourages categorization and specification where narrative fiction favors imagination and non-specificity. You can see this in works like the Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), which has strong roots in roleplaying gaming.
Beyond the strict game design considerations, there are economic ones. A roleplaying game is typically more than a single book, it is an entire line of products with different subjects which involve the same setting and/or system. Overall development of a game line requires high-level decisions on which books to produce, and how to keep setting material and style consistent between products, because what is written in one book can impact every other book in the line. Line development influences how the setting or its presentation changes over time, and players are often quick to harp on real or imagined discrepancies between rules or setting information between books…and by building on developments from one book to the next, the game setting and rules grow richer and more complex, which often draws readers and players in.
With Call of Cthulhu, this sets a complicated relationship with the Mythos. The game itself takes inspiration and makes reference to a set group of stories and concepts created by Lovecraft & co.—and the line developers, editors, writers, and artists need to make decisions when that material is vague or conflicting. Yet those same creators have no control over what anyone else creates, so while they strive to keep consistency within their own game line, the Mythos continues to proliferate outside of those artificial boundaries…and with many writers and artists taking inspiration from each other, it can be very fuzzy as to whether a given Mythos story is “in” the setting (or settings plural, as it is now) of Call of Cthulhu fiction, or if it is general Mythos fiction that has taken, as David Conyers pointed out, some inspiration from the game and the reference materials it has generated.
For most readers, the distinction is negligible or academic. As Conyers noted, many creators have dipped into or taken inspiration from the volumes of material produced by Chaosium and creators of various related Cthulhu roleplaying games over the years. To take one example, the popular image of Nyarlathotep as a three-legged being with a long tendril for a head and a bloody maw with a long tongue is not referenced anywhere in the works of Lovecraft, Derleth, or other first-generation Mythos authors; it was created for the roleplaying game, but has gone on to become one of the most popular depictions of Nyarlathotep. Some other aspects of the popular Mythos were created or codified by Call of Cthulhu, such as the Order of the Silver Twilight which has featured heavily in spin-off works like Arkham Horror and Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game.
As a roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu tends to be very conservative in terms of mechanics, setting development, and presentation. That is part of the reason that a good deal of the actual innovation in the setting in terms of critically analyzing and rethinking the setting and pitch of how the game is played and who is playing it devolves to related games like Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios.
This has led to a certain domination of the game by nostalgia. The Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) campaign written by Larry DiTillio with Lynn Willis, for example, has been revised, re-packaged, expanded, and re-released for six different editions of the game. Because of the strong influence and constant re-publication of Masks, it has tied into many subsequent Call of Cthulhu products and become something of a cornerstone of the identifiable Call of Cthulhu line identity. Fans have created original art, spin-offs, prequels, sequels, soundscapes, and props based on the campaign. The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast is a direct reference to the campaign, where the player character investigators are good friends of one Jackson Elias.
Madness is the mark of gods, the response to the whisper of ancient secrets, and the unseen hand that turns the world in its disordered course. With it, I have peered beyond mere dream and pattern, beyond childhood impetuosity and adult grief, beyond the analysis of which other men are capable. Accepting madness, I accept the gods and rule well with their gifts thereby.
—The Masks of Nyarlathotep (4th edition, 2010) 185
Last but not least, Masks of Nyarlathotep has inspired Call of Cthulhu fiction such as “The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” by Penelope Love. The background is a bit necessary because while this story can be read and enjoyed on its own, it is so tied into the Call of Cthulhu setting and Masks of Nyarlathotep and its ancillary materials to such a degree that is fundamentally a product of the game rather than an independent Mythos story that is just borrowing some names or characters.
Pastiche takes as its hallmark a slavish devotion to the outer forms and tropes of Mythos fiction, but this is something much more relaxed and intimate. Love isn’t trying to ape Lovecraft’s style or anyone else’s, it’s a story that demonstrates a profound amount of Mythos lore as codified by Call of Cthulhu over the previous five decades but doesn’t really seek to capture anything of the Lovecraftian tone of mystery or cosmic horror. It is very much a peek behind the scenes, at the kind of happenings that occur off the page in a regular Mythos story or as a result of decisions made by the Keeper or gamemaster as to how the story will react to what the player characters are doing.
Like “Scritch, Scratch” (2014) by Lynne Hardy, to really appreciate what Love does with this story really requires understanding that background of game design and the culture of Call of Cthulhu as distinct from how other Mythos writers approach the material.
“The Whisper of Ancient Secrets” was published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults(2010). It has not yet been reprinted.
Oggi Aquilonia has ottenuto la pace a caro prezzo e il Barbaro ormai è un vecchio stanco Re pieno di rimorsi, sognando il clamore della battaglia e l’adrenalina dell’avventura… questi sono tempi in cui il fuoco e l’acciaio potrebbero dettare le nuove leggi dell’uomo.
Today Aquilonia has obtained peace at a great price and the Barbarian is now a tired old King full of remorse, dreaming of the clamor of battle and the adrenaline of adventure … these are times when fire and steel could dictate the new laws of man. — The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
Dead pulp authors can eternal lie, and in strange aeons many of their works may still be under copyright or have certain characters trademarks depending on the intellectual property laws of any given country. In Europe, the works of Robert E. Howard may be in the public domain, and because of that they are fair game for reprinting and reimagination. This applies both for prose works like the novel The Song of Bêlit (2020) by Rodolfo Martínez, and for comic books and graphic novels like French publisher Glénat’s gorgeous series of new adaptations of Robert E. Howard’s original stories of Conan the Cimmerian.
Comic books and graphic adaptations of the Cimmerian are intriguing because from 1970 to 1993 Conan (and other Robert E. Howard characters) were licensed to Marvel Comics, which provided a distinctive and iconic interpretation of the character—all the more so because the Conan comics were translated and published everywhere from Japan to Turkey. Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian was the most successful sword & sorcery comic of all time, with tie-ins to the 1980s Arnold Schwarzeneggar films, merchandise, and the lore of Robert E. Howard became intimately entangled with the Marvel Universe—including the Serpent-god Set, the Serpent Men, the eldritch entity Shuma-Gorath, the sinking of Atlantis, and by extension the Hyborian backstory of Varnae the Vampire and Kulan Gath, the villain of a popular X-Men event.
Marvel wouldn’t be the first to publish a Conan comic—La Reina de le Costa Negra in Mexico has that honor with its blond barbarian—nor the last, as Dark Horse held the license for many years. Yet Marvel’s Conan remains distinctive in fixing the barbarian’s appearance and some of his mannerisms and the development of his world. Even Dark Horse’s Conan under various artists and writers looked a bit more like the Marvel Conan than it did the original illustrations in Weird Tales, although the Frank Frazetta covers for the Lancer paperbacks in the 60s had their influence on both. Both Marvel and Dark Horse worked to both adapt Robert E. Howard stories and to publish new adventures of the barbarian, woven in and around his published career.
Which makes it really exciting to see how different creative teams handle the character.
The Barbarian King is an Italian-language series of fumetti (comics, equivalent to perfect bound graphic novels in the United States) from publisher Red Dragon and Leviathan Labs. The creative team for the first volume, Le Spade Spezzate (“The Broken Swords”) is Massimo Rosi & Alessio Landi (script); Luca Panciroli, Federico de Luca, & Alessandro Bragalini (pencils, ink, & layout); Marco Antonio Imbrauglio (colorist); Enrico Santodirocco (editing); Mattia Gentili (letterer); and Lucrezia Benvenuti (logo & map design).
In adapting Conan to comics there are traditionally two routes to take: adaptation of the original stories or the creation of new works that are based on past works and/or the same characters—Marvel also had a habit of adapting some non-Conan Robert E. Howard stories, non-Robert E. Howard Conan stories, and even some non-Conan sword & sorcery stories as Conan comics. One reason Marvel could “get away” with this is because they took a very different approach to continuity than Robert E. Howard did.
By the time Marvel got Conan, essentially all of his adventures had been published. These were initially written and published out of chronological order; Robert E. Howard was not setting out to create a single sprawling epic novel like The Lord of the Rings or The Odyssey, the adventures of Conan were written and published out of order, telling different stories from different periods of Conan’s life. This freed Howard from any strict timeline of events, much as the Hyborian Age—as a prehistoric hodgepodge of different places and eras—allowed him the freedom to shift setting and tone. Conan could be in a young thief in police procedural one story (“The God in the Bowl”), then an experience adventurer in a pirate story (“The Treasure of Tranicos”), then a king of a mighty nation overthrowing usurpers in a medieval war (The Hour of the Dragon), and it was up to the fans to piece together a probably outline of Conan’s career…which a couple of early fans did in the 1930s, and which other fans have added to or revisited ever since.
Marvel and to a degree Dark Horse would use these outlines as the skeleton on which to build their own storylines. By starting more or less linearly from the beginning of Conan’s career, they could intersperse Robert E. Howard adaptations with original storylines, follow the trace of Conan’s journeys and develop additional characters and plots—sometimes expanding on what Howard and others had written, sometimes adding new elements, even borrowing from the Cthulhu Mythos or staging crossovers. As a method, this has the advantage in that the Conan comics often had a kind of narrative flow that is usually missing from monthly comics in the United States: you can often literally trace Conan’s travels on the map of the Hyborian Age.
It also allows the development of series characters—sidekicks, reoccurring antagonists, etc.—which are almost entirely absent from Howard’s stories. Robert E. Howard’s Conan is not like Michael Moorcock’s Elric to have a Companion to Champions along for the ride for several subsequent adventures, neither does he have the same lover or enemy. Stygian sorcerer Thoth-Amon as Conan’s arch foe is entirely a creation of later writers; they never even meet in “The Phoenix on the Sword,” or in any other Howard story (although Conan runs afoul of the wizard’s deeds in “The God in the Bowl”). Conan’s habit of killing every wizard he meets and always ending the story with a different girlfriend was one of the major critiques laid against the pulp hero—but in the comics, many more encounters could be planned and carried out, more tension built up, relationships would have more lasting impact because they lasted longer from issue to issue and story to story.
The Howard’s Conan chronology ends, effectively, with The Hour of the Dragon. There he is king, he has survived multiple attempts on his life and rule, and he is going to take as queen the young woman Zenobia. No Howard stories are set after this point, though other authors and comics picked up at this point because it is a natural gray area: anything can happen, because nothing more is written after this point! Conan could even die—an impossibility in earlier tales, because of course he has to survive for the next adventure that is already planned out.
So after the events of The Hour of the Dragon is where The Barbarian King picks up.
King Conan is conspicuously different in this incarnation than the Marvel or Dark Horse versions: heavier, hairier, with grey streaks in his beard and scars on his face. While Conan comics have often been a bit more mature than others on the stands, able to get away with more gore and nudity than most comics, The Barbarian King leans into both more than most, but less for exploitation than because this is a very different, darker, more mature story than more readers will be familiar with and occasionally gritty, multi-media artwork fits the tone.
When Roy Thomas and other writers began to adapt Conan to comics in the 1970s, they did so in part with the guidance of L. Sprague de Camp; de Camp had inserted himself into the editing of Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories, and had written several Conan pastiches, finished various fragments and synopses, and expanded the outline of Conan’s career. He didn’t do this for free or even directly, and Roy Thomas is frank about their relationship in his great memoir Barbarian Life: A Literary Biography of Conan the Barbarian, but de Camp’s influence was still strong on the series. Dark Horse’s comics, on the other hand, were published after a revolution in Howard studies & publishing had strongly emphasized the publishing of the original, unedited Robert E. Howard texts and the decline of pastiche—so show fairly less influence from de Camp—but they still follow Campian certain trends, like the emphasis on Thoth-Amon as an archvillain.
The Barbarian King ignores de Camp more or less entirely. Rather than setting Thoth-Amon up as the villain, they turn to one of the most iconic Conan stories of all time: Yara from “The Tower of the Elephant,” who has escaped from his prison and is now in command of new and inhuman powers from the Cthulhu Mythos to revenge himself on the barbarian king. This crossover isn’t the first time the Mythos have entered a Conan story (Robert E. Howard himself included explicit refrences to Lovecraft’s Mythos in the first draft of “The Phoenix on the Sword”), but it set the tone for the series as it develops: this is sword & sorcery with a strong blend of horror into the mix.
If The Barbarian King avoids de Camp and Marvel’s legacy for the most part, the influence of the 1982 film Conan the Barbarian is still very obvious, in theme, language, and occasional artistic flourishes that call back to the iconic Atlantean sword. Perhaps some of the costuming and nudity may also be reminiscent of 1980s Italian Sword & Sorcery films that were inspired by Conan, such as the Ator series or Sangraal…or perhaps not; the artists and writers on this project are obviously keen on the genre, but this is a Robert E. Howard project through-and-through.
Il desiderio era fondere il Fantasy Eroico Howardiano con un qualcosa di quasi Lovecraftiano e Barkeriano, cosa che immaginai quando lessi i VERMI DELLA TERRA con Bran Mak Morn la prima volta, nonché flavour che ho ritrovato da poco in Britannia di Milligan e Ryp, ad esempio.
The desire was to blend Howardian Heroic Fantasy with something almost Lovecraftian and Barkerian, which I imagined when I first read WORMS OF THE EARTH with Bran Mak Morn, as well as the flavor I recently found in Milligan and Ryp’s Britannia, for example. —Massimo Rosi, “Intervista a Massimo Rosi a cura di Italian Sword & Sorcery” in The Barbarian King 1: Le Spade Spezzate
The story is brutal enough in some places to edge toward grimdark, although I don’t think the story is amoral or dystopian in that sense. It is definitely less reminiscent of Howard’s more high-hearted hero and more Conan in his darker and broodier moods, pushed in directions that Howard would never have dared take him in the pulps—and in that respect, I think, the series is highly reminiscent to the new Elric graphic novel adaptions being published by Titan books beginning with The Ruby Throne. Comic storytelling can be grittier and more explicit now than ever before, and in revisiting these characters these writers and artists are pushing the limit a little, going beyond just the words in old paperbacks and pulp magazines…and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Questo è il Re Barbaro! E sono sicuro che lo riconoscerete nell’albo che stringete ta le mani, perché gli autori che lo hanno realizato sono figli di Cimmeria e hanno compreso da temp il segreto dell’acciaio; ad animarli è la passione per le battaglie e per le donne; a contraddistinguerli uno lo spirito libero, sprezzante della censura e del politically correct. Chi sono io per dirlo? Son il cronista delle loro imprese e brindo alla loro gloria. Ma ora, bando alle ciance, è tempo di tornare nel mondo hyboriano.
Buona lettura cimmeri!
This is the Barbarian King! And I’m sure you will recognize it in the book that you hold your hands, because the authors who made it are sons of Cimmeria and have long understood the secret of steel; to animate them and the passion for battles and women; to distinguished by a free spirit, contemptuous of censorship and political correctness. Who am I to say? I am the chronicler of their exploits and I toast to their glory. But now, no more chatter, it’s time to go back to the Hyborian world.
There is a popular conception that Lovecraft ignored economics in his Mythos stories. While he doesn’t deal with dollars and cents, and economic woes aren’t a major theme, this isn’t quite true. Money was largely a distraction in Lovecraft’s stories. When it was present at all, it was often in the form of gold, such as the ancient gold pieces spent by the Terrible Old Man, or the strange pale gold that came out of the refinery at Innsmouth, or that gold which was mixed with starborn Tulu metal in the caverns of K’n-yan in “The Mound.” The United States was still on the gold standard throughout Lovecraft’s lifetime; for a man that paid for his daily meals in dimes and quarters, gold was how he thought of wealth.
The cult of Cthulhu never needed gold. Why would they? Why would Cthulhu want your money?
Money and wealth weren’t major themes in Lovecraft’s work largely because the human emotions and narratives that wrapped around them—greed, desperation, economic stress—weren’t what he wanted to write about. His inheritances and legacies focus on different kinds of wealth: the ancient books of Wizard Whateley, preserved for his grandson’s use; the Innsmouth Look that can’t be bought or sold; the jade amulet pried from the corpse of a warlock, dug out of the grave. In that same sense, Lovecraft’s cults were not designed with the realities of religion in mind. We never hear of collection plates during the rites of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, or a building fun for a proper temple for the Cult of Cthulhu, or a bake sale or potluck for the Starry Wisdom.
Lucy A. Snyder’s “Cthylla” is essentially a cyberpunk narrative, even though it’s set in a contemporary period and there isn’t any real science fiction or overt fantasy elements. Maybe some other label would be more fitting, but “cyberpunk” fits in terms of the themes more than the thematic trappings. Cyber because it is ultimately about computers and human connections, punk because it is a narrative of personal alienation, transformation, and ultimately rebellion against the status quo.
Real-life has shifted the technological and socio-political bases that cyberpunk of the 1980s was built on, but the themes remain relevant. Human augmentation and space travel were tropes of an older style of science fiction, adapted and explored with aplomb and style, but they didn’t really foresee the internet or smartphones, nor did they try to; the break-up of global superpowers and the rise of megacorporations never quite happened as they predicted, the environmental disasters and plagues foreseen have rolled out generally slower…but the point of science fiction is not to accurately predict the future. The point was to present a certain setting of high tech and low life, a background dystopia against which to tell stories where technology and society had reached a point of individual alienation and transformation. You can set a cyberpunk story in today’s world, without cyberware. We’ve arrived at the future, just not quite the one we imagined.
Yet the stars are not yet quite right.
The Temple of the Deep Mother needs your money because it is the megacorp of the setting. Technologically and legally savvy, its tentacles are everywhere, and it exists to squash individual interests and identities to conform to its self-serving goal. The megacorp doesn’t care about its employees; they are literally to be sacrificed, products made to be consumed, costs already factored into a cosmic balance sheet, and to fuel their continued growth and achieve their final goal they need to make movies, build and operate spiritual retreats, pay employees…everything costs money. Probably there’s a big spreadsheet with a bottom line pinpointing the exact cost to raise the Goddess from the deep.
There’s a certain banality to it all; that is to be expected when you pull the curtain back and think about how a cult would actually work in a world with smartphones and an internet. The Temple of the Deep Mother might be a bit more sinister than Raëlism or the Brotherhood of the Seven Rays, but if it popped up today it would likely be hard to distinguish outwardly from other new religious movements. In the context of the story, Snyder makes that work. The ultimate result they aim for is mystical and nihilistic… “everybody died and none of this mattered.”
One thing didn’t fit into the program or prophecy: you can’t buy love, and you can do ever so much with computers these days. What if somebody did matter? What if you could make them matter? It is a very human response to rise up against a system that seeks to devalue humanity…and “Cthylla” is a very human story. The lesbian relationship that is developed, the brief interludes of loving someone that suffers from mental illness and attempts suicide, are poignant. They have to be, because they are the backbone of the story. One lives her corporate life, born to die; the other finds in her lover a reason to live and rise above herself.
There’s a certain symmetry between “Cthylla” and “Take Your Daughters to Work” (2007) by Livia Llewellyn—both of them feature a comparable ugliness in a cult that will literally sacrifice its future, its children, in pursuit of its goals, but they get there through different routes. “Take Your Daughters To Work” is industrially-focused, steampunk, visible machines and progress; “Cthylla” is more postmodern. Both may involve tallying lives and dollars, but there’s no way to judge progress for the millenarian project in “Cthylla.” There is a very punk aesthetic to the idea of being raised in a system where you very expressly have no future, except instead of nuclear war the promised apocalypse is some cosmic horror raised from the depths, and if Llewellyn’s story is about the horror of acceptance, Snyder’s story is about what happens if, just maybe, someone fights back.
Sonnets, it seems to me, are preëminently the medium for complete ideas—in short, for a poetry as nearly intellectual as poetry can be without ceasing to be poetry. There is something inherently reflective and analytical about the very form of the sonnet. —H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 25 Feb 1924, SL1.317
The Fungi from Yuggothis a sonnet-cycle by H. P. Lovecraft which has become, post-mortem, his most-remembered and celebrated work of poetry. As David E. Schultz deftly traces in “Dim Essences: The Origins of The Fungi from Yuggoth” in The Fungi from Yuggoth: An Annotated Edition, most of the sonnets were composed in a forty-day burst from December 1929-January 1930, but their numbering and publication proved complicated during Lovecraft’s lifetime, with various sonnets appearing in different amateur journals and Weird Tales, sometimes labeled as part of the cycle and sometimes not, often with different numbering. Never published as whole during his lifetime, the full sonnet cycle was finally compiled in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House), and has been reprinted in whole and in part many times in the decades since, as well as analyzed, illustrated, set to music, and even adapted to comics.
More than that, “The Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnets have inspired generations of writers and artists. One somewhat infamous project was Alan Moore’s Yuggoth Cultures, a novel of short pieces inspired by Lovecraft’s sonnets. Most of that work was lost, but of the ones that survive “The Courtyard” was adapted to comics and launched a body of related works, notably its sequels Neonomiconand Providence. Other works were in a more poetical vein, such as the anthology More Fungi from Yuggoth(2000), and Starry Wizdom’s “Night Gaunts, Too (On reading sonnet XX in H.P. Lovecraft’s *Fungi from Yuggoth* cycle)” from Walk on the Weird Side (2017).
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth” (“in the manner of H. P. Lovecraft”) are a little more obscure. How and why she was inspired to write them isn’t clear. Briley was a noted poet associated with both state-level and national-level poetry organizations, and was no doubt at least aware of August Derleth through his poetry publications: in addition to publishing fantastic poetry through its regular imprint, Arkham House had a poetry-only imprint titled Hawk & Whipporwill. She could have read Lovecraft’s Fungi in the Arkham House Collected Poems of H. P. Lovecraft (1960), or the Ballantine paperback Fungi from Yuggoth & Other Poems (1971).
Whatever the case, in 1977 two sonnets labeled “Fungi from Yuggoth” appeared in her collection From A Weaver’s Shuttle. Newspaper accounts in ’77 and ’78 show Briley won awards from the National Federation of State Poetry Societies, possibly for that volume; the August Derleth Society Newsletter (vol. 4, no. 3, 1981), which reprinted the two Fungi claimed the poems won the August Derleth Memorial Award—unfortunately, the newspapers failed to list what awards that Briley won, and there are no lists of awardees for the NFSPS that far back currently available online, so it is hard to give specifics. The last publication of Briley’s Fungi I have been able to find is in a small pamphlet titled Weird Sonnets (1981, Owl Creek Press), which is described by one review as not a sequel to Lovecraft’s Fungi, but a collection of works that “belongs to the same loose tradition.”
Which is as accurate a description of Alice Briley’s Fungi as anything.
Her sonnets consist of “I. The Elder One” and “II. Arkham Hill.” They follow the form of Lovecraft’s Fungi, being 14 lines each; they are technically correct in terms of rhyme and meter, but probably aren’t the more beautiful lines she ever produced. The last lines to “The Elder One” for example are a bit clunky:
A feathered thing that bore a human face Came swooping toward me in a wild descent, and clutch me tightly in a foul embrace. Not heaven’s herald, but from its fetid breath, An Elder One more primative [sic] than death.
“More primitive than death” is an odd image. The rhyme works, but one wonders what exactly she was thinking of, since the “Elder One” reads more like a harpy or some fallen angel than most of Lovecraft’s creations.
“Arkham Hill” is a bit more promising, in that at least it establishes a stronger narrative and an effort at an original creation with ties to Lovecraft’s setting. The witch Eliza Pruitt lived by Arkham Hill, and many sought her until:
Until that fearful twilight when she found Those mushrooms she had never seen before, At dawn, they found her writhing on the ground “Fungi from Yuggoth!” she screamed. Then said no more.
Again, not a great deal of familiarity is shown with Lovecraft’s fiction; at least, nothing to show that she had read anything beyond The Fungi from Yuggoth. Yet even that little exposure appears to have stirred her imagination, and she sought to expand on Lovecraft’s horrors in her own way. Yuggoth spores that took root in a fertile imagination and sprouted, however briefly, some fruiting bodies.
Given the decades since their last publication and Alice Briley’s demise, whether these particular Fungi will spread once again is unclear. Under current U.S. law, the work is almost certainly protected by copyright…but they are possible orphan works where determining who owns those copyrights and getting permission may be difficult and more costly than it is worth. This is an ongoing issues with many minor Mythos works, akin to some of the issues involved with fanfiction—and there is a danger that such works may be forgotten or lost with time before they can enter the public domain. Even digital archiving can be difficult without the proper permission from the copyright owners.
Alice Briley’s “Two Fungi from Yuggoth,” then, represents both the fecundity and the fragility of the Cthulhu Mythos: while Mythos works are in no immediate danger of dying out, who knows what works have already been lost, crumbling away in some forgotten fanzine?