“Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear

The sea-swept rocks of the remote Maine coast are habitat to a panoply of colorful creatures. It’s an opportunity, a little-studied maritime ecosystem. This is in part due to the difficulty of access and in part due to the perils inherent in close contact with its rarest and most spectacular object: Oracupoda horibilis, the common surf shoggoth.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150-151

Shoggoths appear or are mentioned only three times in the work of H. P. Lovecraft: they appear on the page in At the Mountains of Madness (written 1931, published 1936), and they are mentioned in passing but do not appear in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (written 1931, published 1936) and “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written 1933, published 1937). It is in the latter story that we learn there are shoggoths in Maine.

In “The Mound”, Lovecraft had shown how an “advanced” yet alien race had used biological science to enslave and shape living creatures to their use. Intelligent beings became beasts of burden and livestock. The shoggoths extended this conception: where part of the horror in “The Mound” (as with the earlier story “The Rats in the Walls”) was that the creatures of K’n-yan were part-human, the shoggoths were entirely inhuman in their conception. Biological robots in all but name, engineered lifeforms created to serve…and for anyone raised in the United States of America, as Lovecraft and most of his readers would have been, there are connotations there. Because for centuries the slave system of the United States had been based entirely on race.

Lovecraft knew this. He commented on historical slavery in his letters with friends. Like many white people in the early 20th century, he was misled by the Lost Cause propaganda of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning School—and by his own prejudices—about the horrors of slavery. His view of the plantation system in the antebellum South (and his own native Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, which was an historical nexus for the slave trade) was rose-colored. The best example of Lovecraft’s line of thought on this matter, when he and his friend and fellow pulpster Robert E. Howard had fallen into a discussion of what we would call wage-slavery today:

As for peonage or actual slavery—that is hardly a practical possibility except with inferior or badly-cowed race-stocks. The whole psychological equilibrium which made it possible in mediaeval and ancient times has been permanently destroyed. But it really wouldn’t be so bad to enslave niggers, Mexicans, and certain types of biologically backward foreign peasants. I’m no abolitionist—in fact, I’d probably have been almost ostracised in New England in the hectic days of Charles Sumner, Wendell Phillips, and Bostonese pharasaism in general. Of course, slavery ought to be regulated by stringent laws as to the treatment of slaves—laws backed up by frequent governmental inspections, and sustained by a carefully directed public sentiment as to humane conditions. In the 18th century, when we had negro slaves in Rhode Island, there was never any discontent or talk of ill-treatment. On the large estates of King’s County (estates duplicating the plantations of the South, and quite unique for the North) the blacks were in general simply contented—having their own festivities, and indulging in a kind of annual Saturnalia in which large numbers met and elected one of their number “King of Africa” for the ensuing year. One of my ancestors—Robert Hazard—left 133 slaves in his will. What caused slavery to decline in the north was the complex economic readjustment which rendered large-scale agriculture and stock-raising no longer as profitable as maritime commerce. When it no longer paid to keep niggers, our pious forbears began to have moral and religious scruples about the matter—so that around 1800 Rhode Island passed a law limiting slavery to black over 21, and declaring all others, and all subsequently born, free. Later this was amended to free the adult negroes—though most stayed right on with their masters as nominally paid servants. In the next generation, when slavery was defunct in the north but seen to be still a source of profit in the south, it occurred to northern politicians to become very Quixotic and devoted to the ideal of freedom—hence the impassioned frock-coated moralists of the abolitionist school, calling upon heaven to end the unrighteous curse of human bondage. But on the whole I don’t think slavery would form a practical policy for the future. Psychological conditions have changed. I don’t think inferior races, or persons of very inferior education or capacity in any race, ought to have the political franchise; but I think it is the best public policy to give them as much freedom as is consistent with the maintenance of the civilisation on an unimpaired level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 Nov 1932, A Means to Freedom 466-467

Howard, for his part, concurred and cited his own family’s history of slaveowningalthough as Rob Roehm pointed out on Howard History, Robert E. Howard appeared ignorant of the details of his own ancestors’ violence toward their slaves.

The shoggoths had rebelled.

Rebellion was the one great fear of all slave-owners; that the violence inflicted on slaves for years and generations would be returned. Lovecraft, writing in 1931, might have been inspired by the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) mentioned in books he read that year such as William Seabrook’s The Magic Island (1929). The racial violence of that conflict was very clear to Lovecraft, and in discussing one of August Derleth’s voodoo stories of the period Lovecraft notes:

[…] you have the woman describe herself & family as Haitian, which conclusively implies nigger blood. There are no pure white Haitians. White persons living in Haiti are not citizens, & always refer to themselves in terms of their original nationalities—French, American, Spanish, or whatever they may be. The old French Creoles were wholly extirpated—murdered or exiled—at the beginning of the 19th century.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 9 Sep 1931, Essential Solitude 1.376

Shoggoths are not explicitly a metaphor for the Haitians throwing off the yoke of slavery, or of any African-American rebellion. Slavery in the pulps was not uncommon when it came to both historical and fantasy subjects, and the treatment was seldom sympathetic unless person enslaved was white, as is the case in “The Vale of Lost Women”(1967) by Robert E. Howard—and that involves a very different set of racial stereotypes, though white supremacy is still implicit.

It is notable that in At the Mountains of Madness, none of the characters are explicitly African-American. There is no one in that story who might sympathize with the shoggoths through the lens of their personal history. No one like Paul Harding, the protagonist of Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom.”

Harding’s an educated man, well-read, and he’s the grandson of Nathan Harding, the buffalo soldier. An African-born ex-slave who fought on both sides of the Civil War, when Grampa Harding was sent to serve in his master’s place, he deserted, and lied, and stayed on with the Union Army after.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 150

It is interesting to compare and contrast Harding with Theotis Nedeau in “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders. Both characters are Lovecraftian protagonists as they might have been. College-educated African-American men, with deep roots in American history. However, both Bear and Saunders take their characters further, exploring the black experience in the United States at the time. Throughout the story we get more hints of Harding’s background, his mother in Harlem, his experience with segregation and Jim Crow in the South, and even fighting prejudices from nominally sympathetic white Yankees like Burt Clay in Maine.

His Ph.D. work at Yale, the first school in America to have awarded a doctorate to a Negro, taught him two things other than natural history. One was that Booker T. Washington was right, and white men were afraid of a smart colored. The other was that W. E. B. Du Bois was right, and sometimes people were scared of what was needful.
—Elizabeth Bear, “Shoggoths in Bloom” in The Book of Cthulhu 155-156

There is no doubt that the Cthulhu Mythos needs more characters like Paul Harding, and more stories like “Shoggoths in Bloom.” Not because fans of the Mythos need to be beaten over the head with the historical horrors of racial violence and discrimination in the United States or any principle of forced inclusion as a form of political correctness, but because Harding brings a new and important perspective to shoggoths, both as a natural scientist and an African-American who remembered the scars of shackles around his grandfather’s back, and the dark lines of scar tissue on his back.

That is the advantage of inclusiveness: bringing in new points of view.

Bear makes this especially topical in that the story is implicitly set during the opening days of World War II—before there is a war, before the United States is in it. The Holocaust has begun, though the world may not yet know it. What can one man do, when faced with such a threat? Especially when the people around him seem devoted to doing nothing. To standing by while Jews are legislated against, forced out of public life and into concentration camps. This is a different tact than undertaken by “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys. In those stories, the comparison between the concentration camps at Innsmouth and the Nazi efforts fall apart a bit because the Innsmouth folk are confirmed as at least partially inhuman; but in “Shoggoths in Bloom,” it is their common humanity that makes Paul Harding sympathize with the Jewish people in Germany. A victim of racial violence and discrimination all his life, he feels for them as a fellow-sufferer.

In 2009, Elizabeth Bear wrote an article titled “Why We Still Write Lovecraftian Pastiche”, where she writes:

As for what it is about his worlds that brings me as an artist back to them time and again? It’s the holes, quite frankly. The things I want to argue with.

I want to argue with his deterministic view of genetics and morality, his apparent horror of interracial marriage and the resulting influence on the gene pool, as exemplified in The Shadow over Innsmouth. That leads me to write a story like “The Follow-Me Light,” in which a descendent of the Marsh and Gilman families meets a nice human girl and wants to settle down. I want to argue with his reflexive racism, which leads me to write a story like “Shoggoths in Bloom,” in which an African-American college professor confronts the immorality of slavery on the eve of one of our greatest modern atrocities.

Lovecraft is dead, so such an argument might strike readers as one-sided—but it isn’t, not really. Because people are still writing Mythos fiction and pastiche, still elaborating, reinterpreting, re-engaging with Lovecraft’s world and concepts. The context and syntax of the conversation changes, but it hasn’t stopped. People still find new things they want to talk about, and new ways to talk about it. That is in large part what keeps the Mythos alive as a mode of weird fiction.

“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear won the 2009 Hugo award for best novelette; it was also nominated for a Locus award the same year. It was first published in Asimov’s Science Fiction (Mar 2008), and has been reprinted many times, including in The Book of Cthulhu (2011) and New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), and it lent its title to Bear’s collection Shoggoths in Bloom (2012). Readers interested in a deeper analysis of the story may be interested in “How to Hack Lovecraft, Make Friends with His Monsters, and Hijack His Mythos: Reading Biology and Racism in Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom”” (2016) by Anthony Camara.


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

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders

And he remembered a night more than a dozen years ago in Virginia, when he and Nedeau had been stopped by a policeman wanting to know exactly how a couple of “Nigras” had come by such a fine motorcar as the one they were in without having stolen it. Nedeau had flattened the policeman with one blow and they’d fled the state with a posse of cracker cops on their tail all the way up to the gates of the black college they’d been attending.
—Charles R. Saunders, “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” in The Book of Cthulhu 228

The success of Imaro (1981), which virtually inaugurated the Sword & Soul genre, made the fame of Charles R. Saunders. Not many African-American authors were writing Sword & Sorcery, much less with a focus on black protagonists and settings. This is unfortunate because like Robert E. Howard, who essentially defined Sword & Sorcery with his stories of Kull and Conan, Saunders also writes horror fiction. In an era of The Ballad of Black Tom and Lovecraft Country, those interested in more of the same need not wait for more to be written—Saunders was writing it long before Victor LaValle or Matt Ruff came on the scene.

Of course, it is not exactly the same. “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” is more steeped in black history and the black experience over time. Just as Lovecraft found horror delving into the Colonial past in America, so Saunders found new sins to show the readers—for there are some betrayals worse than others, with the right historical context, and old hatreds which persist over generations. Saunders’ own style is neither contemporary nor pastiche; his character Theotis Ledeau is reminiscent of Manly Wade Wellman’s burly occult detective John Thunstone: erudite, intelligent, compassionate, loyal, but also a powerful athlete, prone to action. It is probably the first time a professor of history at Howard University—an historically black college—played a role in a Mythos story; but he plays it very well.

“Voodoo!” he spat the word as if it were a curse. “It would take more time than I have to explain to you the difference between the half-baked Haitian superstition and the true magic of Africa.” (ibid, 234)

African magic and voodoo have been connected with the Mythos since the 1930s; “Mother of Serpents” (1936) by Robert Bloch and “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft testify to how white authors tried to draw connections with African traditions, capitalizing on stereotypes and prejudice for effect. One might easily add Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933), or Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyena” (Weird Tales Mar 1928) and “Pigeons From Hell” (Weird Tales May 1938). The latter makes an especially interesting comparison, as there are thematic parallels between Howard’s zuvembie and Saunders’ semando in this story, although the actual details are sharply different.

Saunders knows the tropes, and uses them as he sees fit in the story, but there is a difference in approach. In the fiction of Lovecraft, Howard, Bloch, the black characters tend to be innately superstitious and inclined to believe in the reality of magic, to fear supernatural reprisal. White characters, if they come to believe, have their fears heightened by racial prejudice—stereotypes of Africa as ancient, unholy, even inhuman. In this story, where the two main characters are college-educated black men, the whole context of the subject is different.

“God!” Henley exclaimed. “This is so senseless—unreal! Savage ceremonies here, in 1933…” (ibid. 235)

Just because he’s black, doesn’t mean Henley knows anything about or even believes in magic. Theotis Nedeau has to convince his friend of the reality of what they face, and the way Saunders touches on the subtle prejudices involved with African-Americans towards indigenous African beliefs is…a world of human experience that the Mythos has never really touched on before.

The ending may surprise people. It is not what is expected, though it is fitting and appropriate, from a certain point of view. It is in part about a question that plagues us still—though the American system of slavery is over, there are many who are born of slavers and slaver-owners; what responsibility do they have? Descendants are not culpable for the crimes of their ancestors, yet the descendants of former slaves still suffer economic and social consequences of their ancestors enslavement. Innocent people can still suffer…and, in the setting of “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt,” the suffering is not yet ended when the reader arrives at the final word of the final sentence.

“Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” was first published in Potboiler #4 (1982). It was republished by Innsmouth Free Press in July 2010, and may be read for free online here. It was subsequently reprinted in The Book of Cthulhu (2011).


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

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” (2003) by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson

“The Necronomicon!” Holmes murmured. “What could a young English lady want with that moldy bit of occult trash?”
—Poppy Z. Brite & David Ferguson, “The Curious Case of Violet Stone”
in Shadows over Baker Street 143

Sherlock Holmes, the consulting detective, has one of the earliest and most enduring fandoms in all of genre fiction. It is perhaps the nature of such an extensive and long-lasting phenomenon for it to mingle with Lovecraft and his Mythos at various junctures.

The practice began, in a sense, with August Derleth: alongside his Mythos fiction, Derleth also wrote an extensive pastiche of Sherlock Holmes under the guise of the detective Solar Pons. “The Adventure of the Six Silver Spiders” (1951) contains a reference to the Mythos—although in this case, it is a bit of a red herring. The idea was made more concrete in The Necronomicon of Solar Pons (2020). From that humble beginning, the idea grew: Peter Cannon’s Pulptime (1984) let Lovecraft and Holmes meet; Lovecraft met with his creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in Gordon Rennie & Frazer Irving’s Necronauts (2001), Thomas Wheeler’s The Arcanum (2005), and Jon Vinson and Marco Roblin’s Edge of the Unknown (2010). Holmes himself has tackled in the Mythos in the anthology Shadows over Baker Street (2003), Sylvain Cordurié and Laci’s Sherlock Holmes & le Necronomicon (2011, published in English as Sherlock Holmes and the Necronomicon), and in 2017 James Lovegrove began the Cthulhu Casebooks series and Lois H. Gresh the Sherlock Holmes vs. Cthulhu series…and the list goes on.

Two households, both alike in dignity.

The nature and quality of the literary mash-up—and, sometimes, double-pastiche—can be desperately silly or deadly serious depending on the attitude and capabilities of the author. In the case of Brite & Ferguson’s “The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone,” the double-pastiche is played straight and serious. Sherlock Holmes is on the case, displaying examples of his deductive logic, in all of his old habits (including cocaine)—only now he’s come across something uniquely outside his particular experience.

There is a central difficulty with a Mythos/Holmes mash-up in that the central mystery is almost always the Mythos itself, which rather gives the game away before it begins. Ideally, if you wanted to surprise the reader, you wouldn’t have entire anthologies of Lovecraftian/Holmesian genreblenders in the first place—but fans might mutiny if they sit down expecting straightforward detective fair and suddenly run across a Yithian. So with the caveat in mind that savvy Mythos readers will no doubt figure out what is going on before long, there isn’t much in the way of tension in the story—”The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” is not a daring adventure that tests Holmes’ intellect to the limit or results in criminals to be captured. No crimes are committed, no one dies.

What readers are given instead is a very well-considered what if. Should Sherlock Holmes have genuinely encountered a Lovecraftian entity…an alien entity…if he was presented with proof of the existence of such things…how would he react? That is the crux of this story, and while it is fairly sedate by the standards of both Lovecraft and Doyle, it is handled with real skill and appreciation for both of the literary forebears whose work comes together in this strange alchemy.

“The Curious Case of Miss Violet Stone” by Poppy Z. Brite and David Ferguson was published in Shadows over Baker Street (2003). It has not been reprinted.


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

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

To ye memory of August William Derleth
—original dedication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hence, Pugmire’s dedication.

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

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

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

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

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

In an afterword to this story, Pugmire wrote:

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

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

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


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

“Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

And you stood up, then. You stood, taller than I recalled because you have grown longer, and the moon flashed across the glistening scales below your small breasts, your nipples as erect and sharp as barnacles, thorns grown from the sea, and I took a step back, despite myself.

Do not retreat.
Do not retreat from me.

Only my thoughts, not yours. I will not now be so conceited as to believe I could ever know your thoughts. Not after what she has done with you, or you have done with her. Mother Hydra has held you tight to her bosom in the lightless places at the bottom of the world, and she has accepted all your gifts, all those human parts you were forever trying to cast aside. The old flesh.
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Pages Found Among The Effects of Miss Edith M. Tiller” in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005), 13

Monsters have a particular fascination in a transgender context. The act of transformation, however violent or painful, gives results. What you were is gone, and you have become something else—perhaps who you were meant to be. Body dysmorphic disorder is real, and the fantasy of such transformations that do not require months or years of hormone replacement therapy and surgery is real.

There is a sexual component to such transformation fantasies. Consider the ending to The Shape of Water, blood erupting in clouds from the vertical scars in her neck as the gills finally come in, as a visual metaphor for losing her virginity all over again. To become a woman…and more than that, to cast her old life behind. Such transformations are one-way, like puberty. You can’t go back again.

In the various sequels to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” a great deal of focus is given to the transformation itself, its implications and effects. “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley and “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe both look at what happens when the change does not come, and how those who cannot go down beneath the waves to live in glory forever and ever deal with that. Caitlín R. Kiernan, by contrast, looks at a heretic. Someone who has refused the call.

And her lover.

Innsmouth-related erotica is not exactly rare; Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton is an entire novel exploring it, and one could easily fill a fairly decent anthology of short stories including such pearls as “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or “Madeline Marsh’s Midlife Crisis” (2015) by K. Z. Morano. Yet it is rare to find stories that focus on the characters involved, their complex motivations and emotions, as much as the sexual action itself. In stories like “The Innsmouth Porno VHS” (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, the characters involved are consciously skeezy and the fetish is teratophilia; they don’t have any emotional investment in the transformation or the people transformed, much like folks fetishize transgender sex workers, seeing them not as individuals but as commodities.

Not so with Caitlín R. Kiernan.

She wants you to feel the reunion of these two lovers, one of whom took the plunge (literally), and the other who would not. Wants that taste of real horror as the act begins, and the clothes are shredded “making of them ribbons for a mermaid’s hair.” Edith’s lover Samaritana did not come back as she had known her…and there are surprises in store.

I stopped struggling (I had been; I can say that now, because I know I ama a heretic) and lay entirely still while those tendrils worked their way quickly between my legs, those strong tendrils or arms sprouting from the hairless mound where your sex had been, twisting back upon themselves, flexing, searching like blind, unfed serpents. What is it the old stories say? Cut off one, and two will sprout in its stead? (ibid., 21)

There is much unsaid in the story. The text has the quality of Edwardian prose, at once explicit and poetic. This is not sexploitation, no actors mugging for the camera and faking orgasms. Elaborations on the Mother Hydra mythos are hinted at but not elaborated upon, and the relationship, like many of the relationships in her fiction, does not have a happy ending. The subtitle for this story is:

Dead by her own hand, Janury 7th, 1905
Danvers State Insane Asylum, Mass.

Which is how it should be. Not every story, even an erotic story, has a happy ending. Transgender folks know that better than most. The struggle of whether or not to transition is real, and takes its toll both physically and psychologically. There is more to unpack in this story…and that probably says more to its quality than anything else.

“Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” was first published in Frog Toes and Tentacles (2005).


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

Orphne #1 & #2 (2018) by Mani C. Price

We live in a Golden Age of Mythos comics. More Mythos comics have been published in the last two decades than in the four that came before that. Lovecraftian references can, and do, appear in everything from webcomics to manga, from The Woman of Arkham Advertiser (A・Aの女): Article 01: In The Vault (2019) by Takata Yuki (高田 悠希) to “The Elder Sister-like One, Vol. 1” (2016) by Pochi Iida (飯田ぽち。) to Innsmouth (2019) by Megan James and Calla Cthulhu (2017). Independent presses have risen with the advent of affordable print-on-demand comic publishing services like IndyPlanet and digital comic marketplaces like Comixology have made it much easier for creators to get their work out there—and to highlight more diverse voices.

orphne002

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams.
—H. P. Lovecraft, The Silver Key

“The gods travel into men’s dreams by way of a key hole and exit from whence they came once their divine mission is complete.”
—Artemidorus, quoted in Orphne #1

Mythos comics cover all the ground that prose Mythos fiction does, from pastiche and parody to genre-bending and genre-blending; it is rarely four-color superheroes punching out the minions of Great Cthulhu. There is room for comedy, erotica, dark fantasy, science fiction, and sometimes quite subtle and atmospheric horrors. What sets comics and graphic novels apart from their pure prose counterparts, or even illustrated stories, is the ability of art and words to come together a such a way as to create a unique reading experience—there are things that can be done in a graphic novel that would be difficult or impossible to pull off in a prose story.

Mani C. Price is a visionary artist and diviner; her penchant for Lovecraft and mythology is evident from her artwork. As the writer and artist for Orphne, Price brings her interests to bear with references to Classical Greek mythology, magic, and Lovecraftian references that are present but not pressed on the viewer. There is no mention in these stories to Lovecraft’s “The Silver Key,” yet the artistic theme of both issues emphasizes keys and key-holes; the figure of Mr. Angell is the image of H. P. Lovecraft—whom Muriel Eddy described as “The Man from Angell Street,” referring to his family’s house in Providence, Rhode Island.

Orphne prefers to show rather than tell; there are mysteries for the reader to unravel, characters are not introduced, and their identities must be divined by what they say and do. We know little about the main character Victoria, but that little we do know is intriguing…she is, more than Mr. Angell, the central character and mystery of the story so far. What key will unlock those answers?

But always I shall guard against the mocking and insatiate Hypnos, lord of sleep, against the night sky, and against the mad ambitions of knowledge and philosophy.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Hypnos”

Lovecraft also had a penchant for Greek and Roman myth, and in the second issue this brings in the figure of Hypnos, Lord of Dreams. Some readers may draw parallels between this character and another popular comics character: Dream of the Endless, created by Neil Gaiman for his run on Sandman (1989-1986). The similarities are superficial, however; Gaiman and Price (and Lovecraft) are drawing in common from the well of Greco-Roman mythology in populating their Dreamlands. As the holder of the artifact that Victoria seeks, Hypnos is being set up as the primary antagonist in a story where most of the conflict so far is unseen—a combination of internal conflicts and unknown forces acting on Victoria, secrets unspoken, hints of supernatural influence.

Where the story goes from here is another question that goes unanswered. Issues #1 and #2 were published in 2018, but the series is not yet finished. Art takes time, and as Orphne is being produced by an individual rather than a big company, some delay is to be expected before we see issue #3. Yet it seems certain that it will be worth the wait.

Orphne #1 and #2 are written and illustrated by Mani C. Price, coloring and layout by Justin Wolfson, lettering by Jason Price, editing by Jason Price and the late Sam Gafford. Issues can be purchased directly from the website Mani The Uncanny.


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

“Paedomorphosis” (1998) by Caitlín R. Kiernan

“Oh,” Annie said and sat down on the rug, grateful for something between her and the concrete. “Where are you from, anyway?”

The loose flap of cloth falling back in place, once again concealing the crack, and “Massachusetts,” Elise replied, “but no place you’ve probably ever heard of.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

Music, lesbians, a muggy Georgia summer, and white blind things in the dark. “Paedomorphosis” is a story of mood and affect, intimation almost to the point of deliberately hiding things. If it wasn’t published in a Mythos anthology…if it wasn’t published by Caitlín R. Kiernan…there are certain connections which might not be made at all. Like “She Flows” by Takeuchi Yoshikazu (竹内義和) the story lives in that liminal space between telling and showing and knowing. It’s not a horror story by any stretch, but there are the bones of horror story technique there: the way the story and characters are built up, like fossils emerging from dry rock of an ancient river bed, and there are only a few people that can read those old bones and reconstruct something of what happened.

To a degree, all stories are reflections of their authors. We read about Lovecraft’s life and we look for the echoes of events and ideas in his fiction; as his life becomes more well-known through biographies, Lovecraft himself has become a kind of character in the fictional universe, fragments of his life and thought cropping up here and there in stories, some more explicit than others.

With “Paedomorphosis,” readers may well ask how much of Kiernan herself is reflected in the story. The setting of Athens, Georgia, where she lived. Elise-from-Massachusetts with her interest in paleontology; Kiernan herself a paleontologist. The imagery of drowning, repeated in some stories, especially her later novel The Drowning Girl: A Memoir (2012). The lesbian characters and her own sexuality.

“I thought dykes were supposed to be all tough and fearless and shit,” she said.

Annie shook her head, swallowed before she spoke. “Big ol’ misconception. right up there with the ones about us all wanting dicks and pickup trucks.”
—Caitlín R. Kiernan, “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 93

The story has the feel of something cribbled together from bits of life; people and places known rather than imagined. A bit of sexual longing, fulfilled. Drugs and rock and roll. And it takes Annie…and the audience…somewhere they never expected, gives them a glimpse of a world they never imagined might exist, those strange caverns measureless to man, the porous world spoken of so cryptically in “Machines Are Digging” (2009) by Reza Negarestani.

The title is never explained; look up the definition on your own time. The story ends with, of all things, a quote from Tolkien:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains…
—J. R. R. Tolkien, quoted in “Paedomorphosis” in Song of Cthulhu 98

But not the whole of it:

There are strange things living in the pools and lakes in the hearts of mountains: fish whose fathers swam in, goodness only knows how many years ago, and never swam out again, while their eyes grew bigger and bigger and bigger from trying to see in the blackness; also there are other things more slimy than fish. Even in the tunnels and caves the goblins have made for themselves there are other things living unbeknown to them that have sneaked in from outside to lie up in the dark.
—J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Chapter V “Riddles in the Dark”

The story captures a mood, but the mood itself is almost inexpressible in anything less than the story. There are things to think about, long after the last page is turned. What might have happened, if Annie had been fearless enough to take the plunge? Who is the subject of paedomorphosis in the story? These are questions that Kiernan doesn’t answer in this story…but in some of her other stories, we catch hints of what might have happened, in love affairs that lasted a little longer and got a little weirder.

“Paedomorphosis” was first published in The Urbanite #10 (1998), it has been reprinted in Kiernan’s collection Tales of Pain and Wonder (2000, 2002, & 2008); Song of Cthulhu (2001); and Rock On: The Greatest Hits of Science Fiction & Fantasy (2012).


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

Windwalker’s Mate (2008) by Margaret L. Carter

She had been chose, she said, to be sacrificed to Ithaqua, the wind-walking elemental which the Stillwater people are said to have worshipped, and she had decided that she would flee, rather than die for a pagan god, of whsoe existence even she was not too sure.
—August Derleth, “The Thing That Walked on the Wind,” Strange Tales of Mysery and Terror Jan 1933

Ithaqua is one of August Derleth’s original contributions to the Mythos; the story that introduced him is first mentioned to Lovecraft in 1930, after Wright apparently rejected it (ES1.277). The sort of chequered history has dogged the Windwalker down the decades; few writers have made much use of Derleth’s creation, although Brian Lumley has made good use of Ithaqua—and given that entity a penchant for spawning children, a la Yog-Sothoth and “The Dunwich Horror”—in works such as “Born of the Winds” (1975) and Spawn of the Winds (1978).

It is Lumley’s interpretation that almost certainly inspired M. L. Carter’s dark paranormal romance novel Windwalker’s Mate (2008), although she puts her own spin on the proceedings. Shannon is a survivor; after the Rite of Union, she left the cult that was trying to bring strange Mythos entities to overrun this world—and forty weeks later she gave birth to her son Daniel, never knowing if his father was Nathan, the son of the culture leader who had participated in the rite with her, or the Windwalker who had possessed him.

Romance may seem an odd genre for Lovecraftian fiction; Lovecraft himself saw little of it in his life and his stories focus very little on those kind of human relationships. Nor were many of Lovecraft’s followers very inclined toward such things. Yet there is a thin substratum of genuine Mythos romance, dealing with the complex tangle of human relationships in a Mythos milieu—and much more seriously than “I Wore The Brassiere Of Doom” (1986) by Sally Theobald or “Love’s Eldritch Ichor” (1990) by Esther M. Friesner. These are works that tend to get overlooked by the main audience of Mythos writers; stuff like Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton, Arkham Dreams (2011) by Robin Wolfe, Widdershins (2013) by Jordan L. Hawk…and one might even include The Dunwich Romance (2013) by Edward Lee, although that gets a little more hardcore than the others.

There are a few steamy moments in Windwalker’s Mate. It is far from the elaborate sexual fantasies of, say, Shoggoth Butt Invasion (2016) by Jason Wayne Allen. The sex scenes serve the plot as much as the reader; Shannon is reconnecting with Nathan, worried about her kidnapped son, placing her hope that coitus will re-establish their telepathic bond (it makes sense in the context of the book)…

He deepened the kiss, drawing her back into the present. her tongue darted eagerly to meet his. His hand cupped her breast through the T-shirt and thin bra. The tingling in the nipple zapped to the pit of her stomach and the V between her legs. The explosion of colors crashed over her again.

Then she saw stars falling like snowflakes and the sky behind them splitting open.
—Margaret L. Carter, Windwalker’s Mate 105

…yet the emotional core of the novel is very serious. Shannon is trying to save her son; she’s a lonely single mother, the cops are useless, and the former cult leader is trying to use Daniel to summon Ithaqua and the Ancient Ones into the world…there is a great deal of drama, both of the mind-numbingly mundane and weird kind.

It works. Opinions will vary on the approach, but M. L. Carter succeeds at what she set out to do: write a paranormal romance with the Mythos as a setting. If Chaosium ever published a sequel to The Ithaqua Cycle (1998/2006), this would not be out of place. The basic premise is much like the question of what happens after Rosemary’s Baby? only with Rosemary having the hard practicality to not stay with the Satanic cult because she had a baby to think of now. Daniel might well be the spawn of the Windwalker, but he isn’t a Wilbur Whateley-esque monster…not yet, anyway.

Windwalker’s Mate was published in 2008 by Amber Quill Press. Carter’s other Lovecraftian works include “Prey of the Goat” (1994) and the erotic novella Tentacles of Love (2009).


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

“Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) by Robert M. Price

[…] we present an original story by the estimable Price, which is dedicated to Lin Carter and Robert E. Howard, as it utilizes Carter’s Dr. Anton Zarnak and Howard’s Steve Harrison. Its style brings back memories of the weird mysteries which Howard was noted for.
—Edward P. Berglund, “Preface to the Revised Edition” Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) vi

In the Spring of 1933, Robert E. Howard got himself a new agent. Otis Adelbert Kline was a pulp writer himself, and had been a reader for Weird Tales in the early days, ghost-editing a single issue to bridge the gap between the outgoing Edwin Baird and the incoming Farnsworth Wright. Kline’s agency handle the promotion and collection of Howard’s work, freeing the Texas pulpster to simply write, and the agent encouraged Howard to splash new markets—to spread his literary wings and try his hands at not just weird fiction but spicy stories and detective fiction.

It was the great period of hardboiled detective fiction, which would become so married to film noir; the pulp magazine Black Mask thrilled to Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op and Sam Spade, Raymond Chandler’s John Dalmas. Yet it was also the era of Sax Rohmer’s Fu Manchu novels. Yellow Peril literature was still going strong in the interwar period; H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard exchanged letters discussing the danger threatened by Imperial Japan, on the rise since their victories in the Russo-Japanese War and the Great War, and worried over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, and the looming probability of a great race war in the perhaps not too distant future.

This was the background against which Howard created Steve Harrison, star of nine weird detective stories, four of which sold and were published in magazines like Strange Detective Stories, Super-Detective Stories, and Thrilling Mystery between 1934 and 1936. Harrison’s beat was normally the local Chinatown, and the plots tend to be more oriented toward action than detection. Racism and racial conflict are part and parcel for the stories; Robert E. Howard, who had written quite a bit for Oriental Stories, obviously never heard Robert Knox’s rule that “No Chinaman must figure in the story.”

“Three unsolved murders in a week are not so unusual—for River Street,” grunted Steve Harrison, shifting his muscular bulk restlessly in his chair. […]

“It’s your business to solve murders,” she said.”

“Give me a little time. You can’t rush things, when you’re dealing with the people of the Oriental quarter.”

“You have less time than you think,” she answered cryptically. […] “Do you remember Erlik Khan?”

Involuntarily his hand sought his face, where a thin-scar ran from temple to jaw-rim.

“I’m not likely to forget him,” he grunted. “A Mongol who called himself Lord of the Dead. His idea was to combine all the Oriental criminal societies in America in one big organization, with himself at the head. He might have done it, too, if his own men hadn’t turned on him.”
—Robert E. Howard, “Names in the Black Book” (1934) in Steve Harrison’s Casebook 143

Occult detective Anton Zarnak was created by Lin Carter in the late 1980s, first as a minor character in “Curse of the Black Pharaoh,” and then star of his own adventures—sometimes written by Carter, others by Robert M. Price, Joseph S. Pulver, Sr; Pierre Comtois, and C. J. Henderson. Carter alongside L. Sprague de Camp had a hand in the legacies of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard; the two collaborated on many further adventures for Conan; revised, finished, or re-wrote Howard’s fiction; published highly-regarded fantasy anthologies and wrote articles promoting weird fiction and sword & sorcery. Lin Carter also created his own “Xothic Cycle” to expand on the work of Lovecraft and August Derleth.

Price in his introduction to Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth notes that Zarnak’s influences include Sherlock Holmes, the Weird Tales occult detective Jules de Grandin (created by Seabury Quinn), Sax Rohmer’s Sir Dennis Nayland Smith, August Derleth’s Dr. Laban Shrewsbury, Steve Ditko’s Dr. Strange, and Robert E. Howard’s own Steve Harrison. Zarnak had his abode in Chinatown, had an Sikh manservant (much as Wong to Dr. Strange, or Ram Singh to The Spider), and had a shelf full of Mythos tomes. The first proper Zarnak story opens:

Below Fourteenth Street, between Chinatown and the river, extends a disreputable region of cryptic, winding alleys, crumbling tenements, rotting wharves and abandoned warehouses slumping in decay. Here dwell the human dregs of a thousand Eastern ports: Hindus, Japanese, Arabs, Chinamen, Levantines, Turks, Portuguese. Once these dark and sinister side-streets and fetid alleyways were the battlefield of the Tong wars; that was in the days of the legendary detective Steve Harrison, who single-handedly dealt out the white man’s law and the white man’s justice along River Street.
—Lin Carter, “Dead of Night” (1988) in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth 107

Steve Harrison was a product of the 1930s; between the time Robert E. Howard drew his last breath and Lin Carter sat down at his typewriter a second World War had come and gone; together with the Korean War and the Vietnam War these conflicts changed the contours of Yellow Peril fiction—it is often forgotten that comic book characters such as Dr. Strange and Iron Man came to be in the 1960s, their pulp fiction roots showing in characterizations of Asian characters as mystical and exotic, such as the Ancient One who taught Strange his sorcery, and the Mandarin who served as a Chinese counter to the American Iron Man. Later, as such blatant Asianophobia waned, the characters would be re-imagined from their original contexts…so what was Carter up to, writing a story with 1930s racial tropes (and almost 1930s racial language) in the 1980s?

In part, it might be because Howard’s Steve Harrison stories had only rarely been published or republished; most of them only became available in the late 1970s and 80s, during the tail end of the “Howard Boom,” and those often spread out; there was no complete book of Steve Harrison stories at the time. Also in part, it could be that Carter did not see the problem; he avoided the outright vulgarities of Howard (the N-word was casually dropped in several stories), and the nature of the fiction was in keeping with the style of the original—which, for a pasticheur like Carter, was important. Some years before, African-American fantasy author Charles Saunders had specifically called out de Camp and Carter for this approach in their Conan stories:

Carter and de Camp, on the other hand, continue to practice good old-fashioned bigotry in their non-Conan endeavors. Though they have done a good job at ameliorating some of Howard’s more blatant racism, their own efforts at sword-and-sorcery are throwbacks. This is doubly shameful, because both of these men are scholars, and should know better. Their books sell well enough, so it may be that racism in fantasy matters little to fandom.

But it does matter to me.
—Charles Saunders, “Die, Black Dog! A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature” (1975)

The Cthulhu Mythos is itself no stranger to Yellow Peril tropes, as seen in “Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer. The question is not if such sentiments are present in the original material, but how a new author working with that material chooses to adapt it to the syntax of their own time. There is nothing wrong with presenting historical racism as a fact of life; To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) for example is set during the Great Depression, and the realistic racism in the novel is critical to the story.

The issue when creating fiction set in this period or in this style is how much the story plays into the inherent biases of racial tropes and stereotypes. Having a villain who is Asian does not necessarily make a Yellow Peril story, so long as the individual is not a villain because they are Asian. Presenting historical racism as it was is often necessary; writing a story as if from that period, with all the inherent approach that the racism is true and correct is neither necessary nor commendable. The point is often a fine one, and easily lost on writers trying to capture the spirit of pulp fiction without considering the ideas and messages inherent in the text, never mind the subtext.

Carter was not alone in trying to navigate these difficult waters. One of the more egregious examples might be “Yellow Peril”: The Adventures of Sir John Weymouth-Smythe (1978) by Richard Jaccoma, which is essentially Fu Manchu fanfiction with a very slight wink toward the Mythos (Jaccoma also holds the rather dubious honor of having written the script for Teenage Twins (1976), the first hardcore adult film to feature the Necronomicon—and an incantation from a Robert E. Howard story—but I digress.) Like Carter, he was essentially trying to write a 1930s style Yellow Peril story.

This is essentially where Robert M. Price’s “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) begins:

The one-man posse of River Street set his feet squarely, while the blue steel of twin automatics leaped into his fists and began to discharge a hail of white man’s justice into the knot of Oriental thugs. When his guns were empty he cast them aside and reached for the Gurkha knife had concealed in his belt Eastern style. It descended with the force of a guillotine, cleaving the skull of the first assassin to elude the rain of bullets and reach him. Himalayan blood spattered Harrison as he pulled the blade free of the sundered wreck of a head and managed to dodge a sword thrust aimed at himself.
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 140-141

Price is deliberately working the story as a throwback piece; a character that uses the term “chink” or “Chinaman” once or twice can be grimaced at as an acknowledgment of the casual historical use of racial pejoratives; but the text itself describes them as “Asiatics,” “Muhammadans,” and “slant-eyed devils.” Not strong language by Robert E. Howard’s standards in 1936…but in 1996?

The story itself is the kind that weaves together disparate elements of Mythos (and non-Mythos) fiction, one of Price’s major interests. So the story references not just Steve Harrison and Anton Zardak, but the Unaussprechlichen Kulten created by Robert E. Howard in “The Black Stone” (1932) and given a German name through the help of Lovecraft, for more on which see “Unspeakable! The Secret History of Nameless Cults; the minor Mythos story “Dig Me No Grave” (1937) published after Howard’s death; the Black Lotus from the Conan stories, for more on which see “Robert E. Howard’s Reefer Madness”; Gol-Goroth from Howard’s “The Gods of Bal-Sagoth” (1931); the cat-headed staff of Howard’s Solomon Kane; a passing reference to Frank Belknap Long’s Chaugnar-Faugn from The Horror from the Hills (1931), which includes an Asian Mythos cult; Lloigor, Zhar, and the Tcho-Tcho from August Derleth and Marc Schorer’s “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932)…and those latter especially deserve further consideration:

And the Tcho-Tchos! Every cop in the area knows them only too well: the latest wave of Oriental immigrants to clutter the docks. Damn near every single one of them connected with the criminal underground in one way or another. There are only a few, but even at that, there’s too damn many of them if you ask me!
—Robert M. Price, “Dope War of the Black Tong” (1996) in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd Rev. Ed.) 155

Derleth & Schorer introduced—and exterminated—the Tcho-Tcho in their story; but the idea of a small alien race in Asia had appeal to Lovecraft, who made reference to them, and were revived by devoted fans like Robert M. Price, who here inserts them into the context of the Asian diaspora to the United States, very unlike their original appearance. The language used against the Tcho-Tcho, who were initially presented as inhuman, is essentially the same as used for any Asian ethnicity in the age of the Asiatic Barred Zone Act (1917). Price doesn’t mention the events of Derleth & Schorer’s story, and glosses over their depiction of the Tcho-Tcho by noting:

You should be aware that these dwarf-like figures belong to a warrior caste specially bred. Not all the Tcho-Tchos are like them, nor have I expressly claimed to be of their nation. (ibid.)

Price’s mingling and confusion of real-world prejudice against Asian immigration with the fantasy racism of Derleth & Schorer’s confusion is a literary sin; whatever his intent, the result is that the real-world fear and hatred is given a justification within the context of story. Price has perhaps exposited too much; the Tcho-Tcho never appear on the page before the revelation is made, so the reader is exposed to their Mythos aspect and the anti-Asian prejudice in virtually the same breath.

Then it gets weirder:

The swelling chorus of guttural voices gave Steve a hint of his earlier dread. Deep down he knew that his Celtic forbears had driven the reptilian kindred of these dusky trolls away from the open spaces of human habitation. His knife thirsted for their stinking blood. He seemed to know that his statuesque cmpanion shared his own primal hate for the Little People. Askbar Singh’s ancestral mythology would know them as the Asuras, eternal enemies of the Aryan gods. (ibid., 163)

For anyone not hip-deep in Mythos lore this probably seems like racist gibberish. It is in fact a very nerdy reference where Price attempts to tie the dwarfish Tcho-Tcho with the Little People in Robert E. Howard’s stories such as “The Children of the Night” (1931) and “The People of the Dark” (1932) which in turn drew inspiration from Arthur Machen’s Little People stories such as “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), “The Red Hand” (1895), and “The Shining Pyramid” (1906); those interested in the gritty details can read about it in “Conan and the Little People: Robert E. Howard & Lovecraft’s Theory.”

The Little People as initially conceived by Machen and Howard derive from racialist anthropological theories that posited a “Mongoloid” race that inhabited Europe before being driven out by the arrival of the Causcasoid race that were the ancestors of contemporary (and implicitly white) Europeans. Both Machen and Howard attributed powers and non-humanoid characteristics to the Little People, and it’s easy to see how Price might have been drawn to the idea of conflating the Tcho-Tcho and Little People who both shared short stature, non-human nature or attributes, ignorant of modern technology, worship of Mythos agencies (in at least some cases)…but also an at least implicit connection to Asian peoples.

The fact that Price gives Steve Harrison a racial—and almost explicitly Aryan—hatred for the Little People/Tcho-Tcho makes the already bizarre mashup of fantasy and real-world racism uglier. Robert E. Howard, with his strong grounding in racialist ideas of history and narrative, had no difficulty writing such stories in the 1930s; Price in putting those thoughts into Steve Harrison’s head was perhaps doing no different than Howard might have done, and certainly was not writing anything worse than Howard had written in “The Children of the Night.”

Yet this was written in the 1990s, not the 1930s.

The fundamental issue here is not so much the use of the Tcho-Tcho as villains; Derleth and Schorer had already done that. If anything, giving the Tcho-Tcho some greater depth and making them something other than an “evil” race of faceless mooks would be praiseworthy. Attempting to accurately portray the historical racism of the period is certainly understandable given the context of the setting, where Anton Zarnak (who lives in Chinatown) and Steve Harrison (who works the Chinatown beat) meet to deal with a mutual threat. Combining the real-world prejudice and the fantasy racism however…this is where the story really gets problematic.

Price himself was a long-time editor of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, and as part of his notes for Howard’s “The Children of the Night” he wrote:

Can you spot similarities between this tale and three by Lovecraft? I am thinking of “Polaris,” where the narrator recalls an ancient life in which he fell asleep on guard duty when he should have been watching for the advance of his people’s subhuman foes; “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” where the narrator’s opening gives nary a sign of the atavistic identity-change he has undergone by the end; and “Pickman’s Model,” where one member of a Kalem-like club is ostracized as a hideous sub-human changeling.
—Robert M. Price, Nameless Cults: The Cthulhu Mythos Fiction of Robert E. Howard 66

Not all the parallels are pleasant: “Polaris” is explicitly a “Yellow Peril” story, albeit one set in a mythical past, for example. Early on “The Shadow over Innsmouth” has more than a trace of it:

But the real thing behind the way folks feel is simply race prejudice—and I don’t say I’m blaming those that hold it. I hate those Innsmouth folks myself, and I wouldn’t care to go to their town. I s’pose you know—though I can see you’re a Westerner by your talk—what a lot our New England ships used to have to do with queer ports in Africa, Asia, the South Seas, and everywhere else, and what queer kinds of people they sometimes brought back with ’em. You’ve probably heard about the Salem man that came home with a Chinese wife, and maybe you know there’s still a bunch of Fiji Islanders somewhere around Cape Cod.

“Well, there must be something like that back of the Innsmouth people.[“]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

With Lovecraft, the prejudice is a red herring. The real-world fears of miscegenation and “foreignness” held by other Massachusetts locals towards the folkd of Innsmouth is a mask for the much weirder and more horrific truth. The locals are correct in that the “Innsmouth look” is the result of Innsmouth being a mixed-race community, they are wrong and ignorant in assuming they know what the “races” involved are. Blinded by their prejudice, they don’t see the terrible reality.

That could have been the case with “Dope War of the Black Tong”—but we never get a sense of the Tcho-Tcho before the Mythos connection is revealed. They have no sympathetic character, no demonstration of the prejudices they must suffer, no real explanation for what they’re doing in Chinatown instead of the Plateau of Sung. In this sense, the Howardian action-adventure approach that Price adopted is partially to blame; he starts off with Harrison in the thick of it, rather than ruminating on what brought the Tcho-Tcho diaspora to the United States, or why they would form a tong.

Price’s story essentially sees Harrison confirm the prejudices he held instinctively against the Tcho-Tcho just for looking Asian.

The racialism in the early Mythos stories from the 1930s can have a very long tail, impacting stories today. It is difficult to say how much influence “Dope War of the Black Tong” has had on the depiction of the Tcho-Tcho as, essentially, default Yellow Peril villains in contemporary Mythos fiction. For example, in the roleplaying game Delta Green, the Tcho-Tcho diaspora and association with drugs and other criminal activities are explicitly part of the setting; however, the explicit association between the Little People and the Tcho-Tcho is not.

“Dope War of the Black Tong” was first published in Disciples of Cthulhu (2nd rev. ed., 1996), it has been republished in Lin Carter’s Anton Zarnak: Supernatural Sleuth (2002), and Robert M. Price’s own collection Blasphemies & Revelations (2008/2019).


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

“The Sorrow of Qingfeng” (2014) by Grey Yuen

Traitorous may be one who withholds praise and gratitude to Her Majesty of Ten Thousand Years for appointing the title of Grand Prefect to our Judge Di Renjie, but when caught between the horns of political obligations and the call of justice, it is justice that often falters.
—Grey Yuen, “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” in Swords & Mythos (2014) 256

Judge Di (or Dee) has become popular in the West through a series of historical crime novels by Robert van Gulik; but the character was based on a real person, Di Renjie, a magistrate during the late Tang dynasty and the early Zhou dynasty under the empress Wu Zetian (“Her Majesty of Ten Thousand Years”), and it is in this period (694 CE) that the story is set. This is not a detective story; though it shares some elements with that genre. “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” is something rarer and weirder: a Mythos Wuxia story.

Wuxia is a genre of Chinese (and more broadly Southeast Asian) fiction dealing with the adventures of martial artists; a form of fantasy which has enthralled millions across the globe, especially in the form of Japanese manga and anime like Dragonball and Fist of the North Star, and Chinese martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978) and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000). The influence of wuxia can still be clearly seen in Dungeons & Dragons and many other roleplaying games, action film around the world, and English-language fantasy fiction.

Mythos fiction, not so much.

Action & adventure is nothing new to the Mythos. The original draft of the first story of Conan the Cimmerian, “The Phoenix on the Sword” (Weird Tales Dec 1932) mentions Yog-Sothoth and the Old Ones, and that was neither the first or last time Robert E. Howard’s sword & sorcery heroes touched base with the Mythos; “The Vale of Lost Women” being a notable instance of swords being taken up against a Lovecraftian horror. Howard was not entirely ignorant of Asian martial arts; there were exhibitions and matches even in Texas in the 1920s, and even wrote “Hard-Fisted Sentiment,” a mixed-martial arts story where an American boxer goes up against masters in French savate, jujitsu, and British boxing in turn.

It has been relatively rare to see a Mythos story where wuxia-style fantasy martial arts feature prominently. Steve Perry’s “The Case of the Wavy Black Dagger” in Shadows over Baker Street (2003) comes pretty close, but for the most part the two modes of fiction simply don’t cross over very often. Cthulhu may be punched, but said punches usually have little to do with specific schools or techniques, swords of nigh-magical sharpness, or the cultivation of internal force. These are the tropes that Grey Yuen specifically invokes in “The Sorrow of Qingfeng.”

Grey Yuen’s style in the story is reminiscent of “Quest of the Nameless City” (2007) by Tachihara Tōya (立原透耶); the effort is made to set the story not in some nameless quasi-medieval Asian setting, but in a specific era of Chinese history and with a style of narration that borrows at least a little from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms (which period, the Tang dynasty, immediately preceded the Zhou dynasty). Like Tachihara Tōya, Yuen makes an effort to combine Western-style Lovecraftian imagery with a very different cultural context, with fairly solid results:

It stared back at me. He stared back me. He was…black—not dark-skinned, not in his skin tone. He was black like the night. At first, I thought he was from the lands far to the west, where the sun scorches and the sands run yellow, where an ancient city waits to be discovered again. But then I realised he was from much farther aay, waiting to give away secrets that would doom us all.
—Grey Yuen, “The Sorrow of Qingfeng” in Swords & Mythos (2014) 267-268

The question of the racial characterization of Nyarlathotep rears its head, as it did in “Collector the Third: Charles Wilson Hodap (1842-1944)” (1995) by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr., but in a slightly different syntax. Yuen is smart to keep explicit details to a minimum, this is a story where a wuxia character encounters the Mythos, and suggestion works better than detailed explanation. Likewise, the spectacle of Master Yue’s Taishan Wulei Palm is all the more effective for seeing the results than the execution.

“The Sorrow of Qingfeng” is definitely an odd duck of a story, and it is hard to see where it might have been published except in an anthology like Sword & Mythos (2014), edited by Silvia Moreno-Garcia & Paula R. Stiles—yet it is an effective story, one that marries disparate modes of fiction and cultural contexts into a very competent whole. It has not yet been reprinted.


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