“Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” (1994) by Nancy Collins

And that wonderful voice and Southern attitude has grown in her work, permeated it. Made it unique. It’s not just a pleasant echo anymore, it’s the whole voice, and it’s special. These stories will prove that to you. They are as varied and wonderful as they come. Some of them, even if they weren’t good, deserve attention just for their unique titles: “Binky Malomar and his Amazing Instant Pussy Kit”, for example.
—Joe R. Lansdale, introduction to Nameless Sins 13

There’s an art to a good title. The title is the first thing you see of any book or story, unless an author happens to already be so successful that they put their name in larger font than. When a reader runs their name over a book spine or a cover, down the table of contents, or increasingly in some digitally organized list, the title is the first chance to hook the reader in. A title is a promise to the reader about what is to come—and pulp writers like H. P. Lovecraft knew that. Which is why he famously wrote:

One thing—you may be sure that if I ever entitled a story The White Ape, there would be no ape in it.
—H. P. Lovcraft to Edwin Baird, 3 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.294

If your title is enough to get someone to read the story, to get eyeballs on it, you’ve already won half the battle as an author. For Lovecraft, what he was selling to readers was not the promise of the title, it was the twist, the surprise. Anyone looking for the rats in “The Rats in the Walls” is playing Lovecraft’s game, setting themselves up to be shocked.

So why did you want to read about “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit”?

Prurient interest, scientific curiosity, maybe just a tingle of admiration at the pure audacity? Nancy Collins knows how to push buttons; just turning the page can be a transgressive act when your title is “Binky Malomar and his Amazing Instant Pussy Kit,” and the readers become complicit as they read the long title with the naughty word in it and still keep reading. If it feels not quite as naughty in the days when vast portions of cyberspace are devoted to pornography, then keep in mind that this was aiming for a market which is not quite extinct, but is in serious decline: the ribald story.

I first wrote this in 1983 and sent it to National Lampoon, which duly informed me they didn’t accept unsolicited manuscripts—no matter how much they liked them. The story was inspired by the classic NatLamps of old, William Kotzwinkle’s Jack In the Box, and the travails of a friend of mine (who shall remain nameless) who was actually desperate enough to send away for “instant pussy tablets” advertised in the back of Harvey.
—Nancy Collins, Nameless Sins 166

The ribald story has a lot in common with weird fiction. In both cases, the point is not exactly to scare or arouse the reader, but to stimulate the mind. Hints and suggestions are potent at building up atmosphere and exciting the reader’s imagination. They can be transgressive in ways that stick with the reader long after the story is over, explicit in some areas and deliberately evasive in others. Many of the classics of ribald literature have had a fantastical element: old fairy tales before Disney got to them, for instance, and Rabelaisian works like Béroalde de Verville’s Fantastic Tales, or the Way to Attain (as translated by Arthur Machen). The weird ribald tale, or a story that combines elements of transgressive sexual humor and horror, is a traditional mode—especially appropriate when after many ribald adventures, the protagonists come at last to a nastily moralistic end.

For most of the “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit,” Nancy Collins delivers exactly what the readers might expect from the title: one 1980s teenagers sexual frustration made horrifyingly manifest. A Lynchian descent into the small ads at the back of comic books and skinmags, as dire in its way as some of the raunchy 1980s comedies. Binky himself is less sympathetic than pathetic; he evokes a degree of pathos, but there are no illusions that his character is any morally superior to any other in the story. We just spend more time with him and his troubles…and Nancy Collins is one of those authors that knows that while it may be wrong to go too far, it is always fun to go much, much further than too far.

“I’m gonna go to my uncle’s farm this weekend. My cousin Horace is gonna let me fuck one of the sheep. You wanna go?”

The thought of Skooky laboring behind the shanks of some poor, unsuspecting ewe was enought to make Binky want to barf.
—Nancy Collins, “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy kit” in Nameless Sins 173

It isn’t until almost the end that readers start to learn that, like Lovecraft, Nancy Collins knows better than to give the whole game away: the title is the tasty bait for the reader to nibble at, once they’re hooked, she reels them in…and the result is satisfying. The ending is absolutely what makes the entire story. It is that little step past over the edge from reality into the world of the fantastic, the Mythos intruding on reality, and the end result is quite literally climactic—this may be the best Cthulhu Mythos stories about masturbation that has ever been written.

Like Nancy Collins’ “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996), “Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” pulls no punches and is essentially a standalone Mythos story, a one-off which rewards a familiarity with the Cthulhu Mythos but doesn’t try to fit into any larger chronology or define some new corner of Lovecaft country of its own…but it works because it doesn’t have to do any of that. It is a relatively straightforward, punchy story with solid comedic timing that knows exactly what it’s doing and why…and it is kind of sad that it’s gone unrecognized as a really good weird ribald story, a much-neglected genre which might include stories like Karl Edward Wagner’s “Deep in the Depths of the Acme Warehouse” (1994) and Robert Bloch’s “Philtre Tip” (1961).

“Binky Malomar And His Amazing Instant Pussy Kit” by Nancy Collins was published in her collection Nameless Sins (1994). It has not been reprinted.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Eldritch Tarot (2021) by Sara Bardi

As for fortune-telling—I won’t try to argue the matter, but believe your continued studies in the various sciences will eventually cause you to abandon belief. Authentic psychology is one thing, but irresponsible prophecy is another.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 19 December 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 348

After a successful crowdfunding, Sara Bardi’s Eldritch Tarot has been unleashed upon the world—but this is not the first and will certainly not be the last tarot to take inspiration from H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. To review this deck properly requires a certain understanding of what tarot is, where it comes from, how it has developed over the centuries—and how and why Lovecraftian tarots became a thing.

What has come to be the “standard” deck of playing cards in the English-speaking world are has ten pip cards (numbered Ace to 10) and three court cards (Jack, Queen, King) in four suits (typically diamonds ♦, spades ♠, hearts ♥, and clubs ♣). These 52 cards are often augmented by two “Jokers,” who have no suit and often are used as wild cards for some games. The exact number of cards, suits, etc. have varied over the centuries and in different countries, through a long and not always well-documented evolution.

Playing cards appear to have entered Italy from trade with the Mamlūk Empire in about the last quarter of the Fourteenth century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 8-9, 12-13). These early Mamlūk decks had four suits (Swords, Coins, Cups, and Polo Sticks); when translated into a European cultural milieu, where polo was less popular, the fourth suit became Batons—and over time, as the deck designs proliferated throughout Europe, different countries and places developed slightly different names and symbols. So the Italian suit of Coope (Cups) became Herzen (Hearts) in German, and Rosen (Roses) in Switzerland; Italian Denari (Coins) became Oros (Gold) in Spanish, Schellen (Bells) in German, Diamonds in English. Spade (Swords) became Spades in English, and so on forth.

Tarot cards are a branch of the evolution of the “standard” deck, and were intended to play games. A typical contemporary tarot deck has four suits (typically Cups, Coins, Swords, and Batons), each with pip cards (A to 10) and four court cards (Knave, Knight, Queen, King); twenty-one trumps, and a Fool card, which gives a total of 78. As with the “normal” playing deck, this was not set in stone, and there were many variations, especially considering the suits, the number and type of trumps, how they were ordered, etc. The trumps were incorporated for trick-taking games: whoever had the higher trump took the trick. Contemporary trick-taking games like Bourré played with normal playing carts designate one of the suits as trumps at the start of the game. In contemporary uses for divination & magic, the trumps (including the Fool) are typically called the Major Arcana, while the pip-cards and court-cards constitute the Minor Arcana.

Tarot decks begin to show up around Milan in the first half of the 15th century (A Cultural History of the Tarot 33-39), and spread and developed from there across Europe for several centuries. As might be expected, there were many local variations, some of which continued on and others which petered out. Eventually, certain consistent styles of decks became dominant: by the about the beginning of the 17th century, the most popular style of tarot deck in France was the Tarot de Marseille. Cartomancy, or divination by shuffling and revealing the cards, appears to have begun in the mid-to-late 18th century in France, and was popularized by the publication of Etteilla, ou manière de se récréer avec le jeu de cartes in 1770 (A Cultural History of the Tarot 93-95).

The system in Etteilla was not tarot-card reading as we know it today. The author Jean-Baptiste Alliette made a variation on the Tarot de Marseille (he used a piquet pack, which had the pip cards from 2 to 6 removed, plus the addition of an “Etteilla” card to represent the asker.) While Alliette was focusing on tarot for fortune-telling as a past-time, French occultist Antoine Court de Gébelin  began to interpret the tarot trumps as occult symbols, and worked them into his system, claiming that they were a corrupted version of the Egyptian Book of Thoth (Egyptomania was prominent in France at the time, and would continue to be popular into the 19th century, which can be seen in developments such as Egyptian Freemasonry). De Gébelin surmised that tarot had been brought to Europe by the Romani (popularly, though sometimes pejoratively called “gypsies,” and who were believed by some to be displaced Egyptians), and the association of tarot and the Romani would continue in the popular consciousness for centuries (A Cultural History of the Tarot 102-109).

By the time Alliette began selling the Etteilla and tarot decks for fortune telling, tarot as a card game had been defunct in Paris, though still popular in other parts of Europe. Building off of the work of de Gébelin and Alliette, Éliphas Lévi Zahed revised and incorporated the symbolism of the tarot trumps into his systemic works of ceremonial magic, including Dogme et Rituel de la haute magie (1854-1856), La Clef des Grands Mystères (1861), and Histoire de la magie (1860)—the latter of which, in the English translation, would eventually be read by H. P. Lovecraft. Lévi’s system brought together medieval European systems of correspondences, the zodiac, kabbalah, and the tarot trumps (A Cultural History of the Tarot 111-117).

While Lévi allowed that tarot was useful for cartomancy, his incorporation of tarot into a system of magic opened up the tarot to be used in other magical operations—and the alterations made in the tarot decks of Lévi, Attelier, and other popularizers like Papus (Gérard Anaclet Vincent Encausse) in the correspondences, numbering, and iconography of the trump cards encouraged others to make further alterations. There were many different occultists throughout Europe who developed the tarot as a means of divination or incorporated it into their occult philosophy—including Helena Blavatasky—but to focus on the path that leads to Lovecraftian tarots, the work of Lévi & co. was particularly influential on a small a group of English ceremonial magicians known as the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (A Cultural History of the Tarot 126-136; A History of the Occult Tarot 76-90).

One of the founders of this society, Samuel Lidell Macgregor Mathers, published The Tarot: Its Occult Singification, Use in Fortune-Telling and Method of Play (1888) the same year that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn came into existenc. The order was organized along the lines of a Freemason lodge (albeit accepting both men and women) with three degrees of initiation, and the system they used was based on a Cipher Manuscript, and included instruction on using the tarot for magical operations. While drawing heavily on Attellier, Lévi, & Papus and still recognizably based on the Tarot of Marseille, the Cipher Manuscript again made several changes in the associations & numbering of the trumps. Among the initiates of the order were Arthur Machen and his friend Arthur Edward Waite, Algernonon Blackwood, Aleister Crowley, Dion Fortune, William Butler Yeats, and William Sharp; a good book on some of these is Talking to the Gods: Occultism in the Work of W. B. Years, Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, and Dion Fortune by Susan Johnston Graf. Though the Order was relatively small, it had an outsized influence on contemporary occultism. The system of ceremonial magic that the Cipher Manuscript and related teachings described, and the tarot deck needed for it, would inform the decks and systems of its initiates (A History of the Occult Tarot 91-113).

In particular, in 1909 Arthur Edward Waite designed a deck, with art provided by Pamela Colman Smith (also known as “Pixie”). Waite based his iconography and numbering on the Order’s, with a few changes, but Smith apparently took inspiration from a 15th century tarot called the “Sola-Busca” deck. Unlike most tarot decks which left the pip cards relatively plain, this deck included full illustrations for all cards, which Pixie followed in her deck. The resulting deck, which was published by the Rider and is popularly (if inaccurately) known as the Rider-Waite tarot has become the most popular and influential tarot deck of the last century, with its suits (Wands, Pentacles, Cups, Swords), trump names and numbering, and iconography becoming iconic (A Cultural History of the Tarot 144-148, A History of the Occult Tarot 127-141).

The Waite-Smith tarot deck was widely published after World War II, and like ouija boards and other aspects of spiritualism and occultism found a new generation of adherents during the New Age movement in the 1970s. Yet before that happened, tarot was already a part of Lovecraftian occultism.

“Aleister Crowley is a now-elderly Englishman who has dabbled in this sort of thing since his Oxford days. He is, really, of course, a sort of maniac or degenerate despite his tremendous mystical scholarship. He has organised secret groups of repulsive Satanic & phallic worship in many places in Europe & Asia, & has been quietly kicked out of a dozen countries. Sooner or later the US. (he is now [in] N.Y.) will probably deport him—which will be bad luck for him, since England will probably put him in jail when he is sent home. T. Everett Harré—whom I have met & whom Long knows well—has seen quite a bit of Crolwey, & thinks he is about the most loathsome & sinister skunk at large. And when a Rabelaisian soul like Harré (who is never sober!) thinks that of anybody, the person must be a pretty bad egg indeed! Crowley is the compiler of the fairly well-known “Oxford Book of Mystical verse”, & a standard writer on occult subjects. the story of Wakefield’s which brings him in (under another name, of course) is in the collection “They Return at Evening,” which I’ll lend you if you like.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 5 April 1935,
Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 420-421

Aleister Crowley is probably the most infamous former member of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and expanded and changed its teachings in his subsequent magickal organizations the Argentum Astrum (A∴A∴) and the Ordo Templi Orientis (O.T.O.); as part of his occult publications he developed his own variant of the tarot deck, often called the Thoth deck (A Cultural History of the Tarot 137-142, A History of the Occult Tarot 142-156). Crowley’s final secretary and acolyte at the time of his death was a young man named Kenneth Grant, who went on to continute to develop and practice Crowley’s magickal system of Thelema, and to publish his own exegesis of the Golden Dawn-derived system. What sets Grant apart from from Crowley is that he directly incorporated fictional elements from the work of Arthur Machen and H. P. Lovecraft into his system in books like The Magical Revival (1972) and eventually inspired artist-occultist Linda Falorio to create the Shadow Tarot (A History of the Occult Tarot 310-311). Other occultist such as Nema Andahadna also used tarot in their Crowley-derived magickal systems. As an example of what this looks like:

One of Crowley’s methods of counter-checking a name or a number was by reducing it to a single number and adding together its component digits, referring the result to a Tarot Key. For example, if a spirit gave as its number 761, this owuld be checked thus: 7 + 6 + 1 = XIV, the Tarot Key entiled Art; and if the symbols and attributions of this Key were consant with the meaning of the number itself, it offered good ground for assuming that a bona fide spirt had responded to the invocation; but further tests would be necessary if doubt remained. Not only can the disembodied spirit of dead or sleeping people impersonate spirits and work evil by such means, but—which is infinitely more dangerous—extracosmic entities can masquerade as spirits and, if they are not banished before they can gain a foothold in the consciousness of he who inoked them, obsession follows. Austin Spare is the authority on their control; Lovecraft, on the devasation they leave in their wake when they are let loose upon the earth.
—Kenneth Grant, The Magical Revival 110

Grant wasn’t the only magician playing with Lovecraftian occultism, but he was the most prominent working within a syncretic system that incorporated tarot as part of its magical workings, as opposed to works like the George Hay-edited The Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978), which was styled on the medieval European grimoire tradition…which, of course, did not use the tarot in an occult context because playing cards and tarot cards weren’t introduced until the late medieval period, and then just for gaming. Those interested in a history of Lovecraftian occultism in general are encouraged to pick up The Necronomicon Files by Daniel Harms & John Wisdom Gonce III.

The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot

By the 1990s, would-be occultists could find mass-market paperback copies of the Simon Necronomicon and copies of the Waite-Smith deck in the New Ages shelves of their local bookstore, but there wasn’t really a Lovecraft-specific deck until David Wynn and Daryl Hutchinson came together to publish The H. P. Lovecraft Tarot (Mythos Books LLC, 1997/2002) in two limited editions, which now command high prices on the secondary market. This tarot largely follows the format of the Waite-Smith tarot in geneal form: there are 22 trumps, and the other cards are numbered in descending order and divided into four suits (Man, Artifacts, Tomes, and Sites), with each card depicting something from Lovecraft’s stories. The manual (by Eric C. Friedman) gives readings and a suggested spread, not disimilar from various Attellier-derived popular fortune-telling books. As a deck, it’s obviously intended as a bit of fun without any of the Waite-Smith style symbolism, opting instead for sepia-toned images, and is a product of New Age occultism married to popular culture—but still representing a lot of work!

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The H. R. Giger Tarot

Swiss artist H. R. Giger named two of his art collections Necronomicon, and although is particular subjects took little inspiration from Lovecraft, that connection between their work has continued (as discussed in “Elder Gods” (1997) by Nancy Collins). In 1992, the occultist Akron adapted 22 of Giger’s famous paintings into Baphomet: Tarot der Unterwelt, which was released as the H. R. Giger Tarot in English. These cards consist of only the trumps/Major Arcana, as well as a fold-out poster for the spread and a 224-page booklet (in the English edition, the German hardback is 408 pages) on potential spreads and interpretations of the cards. Akron had previously worked on The Crowley Tarot (1995), and shows the influence of Kenneth Grant in designating this a “shadow tarot,” but the purpose is more mystical than magical, less New Age in the sense of occult fun-and-games and more intended as a serious (and very cool-looking) tool for personal introspection and spiritual growth.

The Necronomicon Tarot

In the mid-2000s occult publisher Llewellyn published the “Necronomicon Series” by Donald Tyson, a series of pop-occult books with a Lovecraftian theme, including Tyson’s novel Alhazred: The Author of the Necronomicon (2006), a specious magical biography of Lovecraft, some ersatz grimoires, and in collaboration with artist Anne Stokes a tarot deck and manual: the Necronomicon Tarot (2007). This is a full tarot of 22 trumps and four suits (Discs, Cups, Wands, and Swords). While Stokes’ artwork stands out as effective and creative, this is really little more than a re-skin of the Waite-Smith tarot; so that even though the Minor Arcana all bear full illustrations, the system of planetary and elemental correspondences, the suggested readings, etc. are all basically a version of Arthur Edward Waite’s The Pictorial Key to the Tarot (1911). Any tarot-reader already familiar with other systems can pretty much pick this deck up and use it. In this, Tyson’s tarot is totally in keeping with the rest of his work on the Necronomicon Series: pure pop-occultism.

The Dark Grimoire Tarot

By this point it was easier than ever before for basically anyone to print their own tarot, in a consistent size and relatively high quality. Which is why in 2008 the The Dark Grimoire Tarot by Michele Penko and Giovani Pelosini waspublished by Lo Scarabeo in Italy. Despite the unassuming English name, this is in fact a multi-lingual deck and three of the alternate titles are Tarocchi del Necronomicon, Tarot del Necronomicon, and Tarot du Necronomicon, just in case you had any doubts what they were about. This is quite literally just the Waite-Smith deck with different art; all the trumps and suits are the same. The book of instructions is split into six languages, and so only amounts to twelve pages for the English text, offering a very simple pentagram-inspired spread and some concise interpretations. If you don’t already know how to interpret tarot cards, this book won’t give you much to go on—but other than that, it isn’t really very different from the Necronomicon Tarot, and both are pretty much just tarot decks as product, rather than a showcase for art or a legitimate attempt at a useful occult tool.

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The Book of Azathoth Tarot

The 18th century French occultists declared the tarot deck the Book of Thoth, a legendary tome of magical lore which was encoded into the trumps of the deck; in this postmodern world, an occultist called Nemo has reworked this material into the Book of Azathoth Tarot. The first edition of these cards in 2012 had a really ugly back, but the subsequent edition has a much nicer design. Compared to the previous examples, this might be considered the most “serious” of the Lovecraftian tarots to date. It is a full tarot strongly inspired by the Waite-Smith tarot deck, right down to the same suits and trump names and numbers, and even moreso as it incorporates Hebrew letters, astrological symbols, and Zodiac signs into the iconography, and is obviously closely following some of Smith’s iconic designs, with a Mythos twist.

Which kind of works in its favor, oddly enough. The artwork has a design like medieval woodcuts, with a stark but unifrom yellow-and-black color scheme that gives a very clean appearance, and combined with the more classic design gives the deck a more traditional and authentic feel, even though the materials are all completely contemporary. The guidebook (2020) that goes with the deck is sold separately, hardbound and in full color. It is, again, very traditional. This is closer to what a Lovecraft tarot might have looked like if it was made during his own lifetime than anything else yet produced.

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Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set

Released in 2019 with art by Jacob Walker, the Cthulhu’s Vault Tarot Card Set is possibly the ipsissimus of cheap, lazy, and uninspired Lovecraftian reskins of the Waite-Smith tarot. While some of the art isn’t bad and this is a full 78-card deck, that’s damning with faint praise. In the era of cheap printing as sales move away from brick-and-mortar locations and to online marketplaces, this is also the future of Lovecraftian tarot. Anybody with enough raw art and a minimum of design skill can throw together a tarot deck…and have! You can buy the Cthulhu Dark Arts Tarot, Old Whispers Tarot, and the Forbidden Tarot, and no doubt more that I haven’t run across yet.

In an increasingly competitive marketplace, we might expect that a lot of these tarots will fail commercially, and sink out of sight—maybe to reappear on auction websites at fabulous prices, maybe to be remaindered or gather dust at used bookstores and in basements and attics. But with the barrier for entry so low, we might also see a slew of these cheap decks published for the considerable future. While it is ridiculous to assume that any commercial tarot deck is made without an eye toward profit, the lack of care evident in some of today’s tarot decks illustrates how far we’ve come from the roots of the occult tarot, and how seriously folks like Gébelin, Alliette, Éliphas Lévi, Mathers, and Crowley took them. Tarot really has become just a toy for most people.

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The Eldritch Tarot

Which brings us to The Eldritch Tarot by Sara Bardi, successfully crowdfunded and published in 2021. Bardi is an Italian artist, perhaps best known for her webcomic Lovely Lovecraft. The Eldritch Tarot comes with no manual, no key to interpretation, but what it does come with is a lot of heart. The occult DNA of the Waite-Smith tarot deck is still there in the names and numbers of the Major Arcana, but that’s largely where it ends. The four suits are denoted by symbols for The Call of Cthulhu (tentacle), Under the Pyramids (broken chalice), The Dunwich Horror (wavy dagger), and At the Mountains of Madness (the pentagram version of the Elder Sign), and every one of the 78 cards features art in Bardi’s characteristic style.

This is closer to the H. P. Lovecraft Tarot than anything else, but there are no pretenses to occultism in Bardi’s tarot. This is the kind of deck where, if you want to dig out the rules for a tarot trick-taking game, you could sit down at a convention and play a couple hands with friends and have a good time. Or if you want to lay out a spread and tell some fortunes, look up the guidelines on the internet or pick up a cheap book from the library. This is a deck that is mostly shorn of tradition, but the art is clean, detailed, and maybe best of all relevant: this is a deck made by a Lovecraft fan, for Lovecraft fans.

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Lovecraft and Tarot

Meaningless spotted pasteboards […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 3 Feb 1932, Letters to James F. Morton 294

It’s not clear if H. P. Lovecraft ever saw a tarot deck; I’ve yet to find any direct mention of tarot or cartomancy in his published letters or essays. This isn’t vastly surprising: the global popularity in tarot didn’t start to rise until after World War II, long after he was dead; Lovecraft was not given to esoteric knowledge of card games; and his few occult-minded friends such as E. Hoffmann Price and William Lumley do not appear to have had any knowledge of tarot, or at least none is mentioned.

At the same time, we can be fairly certain that Lovecraft was aware that tarot existed, and that cartomancy was a form of divination. Lovecraft had read Lévi’s History of Magic (translated by A. E. Waite), with its references to the tarot; he had also read fictional works like The Golem by Gustav Meyrink (translated by Madge Pemberton), which includes its tarot scene. So it is reasonable to assume that Lovecraft was at least vaguely aware of tarot, its purported occult history, and their use in both games and divination. Certainly, Lovecraft may have been thinking of tarot when he wrote:

One day a caravan of strange wanderers from the South entered the narrow cobbled streets of Ulthar. Dark wanderers they were, and unlike the other roving folk who passed through the village twice every year. In the market-place they told fortunes for silver, […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Cats of Ulthar”

Yet this could also have meant palm-reading, or some other form of divination. Lovecraft may have known little solid about tarot until fairly late in life: there is no direct reference to tarot in his early articles attacking astrology, or his outline for The Cancer of Superstition, a book he had planned to write for Harry Houdini, but which was scuttled by the magician’s death. Weird Tales did advertise books of cartomancy, but most of these would have used a standard playing card deck, not tarot.

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Weird Tales May 1935

It is doubtful that Lovecraft would have any strong belief in either the occult history of the tarot, and no belief at all in its value in divination. He was, as the he mentioned to fan Nils Frome in 1937, not a believer in fortune-telling; too much the mechanist materialist. Nor, for all that he read up somewhat on occultism, does Lovecraft appear to have been generally aware of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn or Crowley’s system of Thelema—which is understandable; Lovecraft was no more an occultist than he was a card player.


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

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“Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021) by J. Lily Corbie

“The only times women are even mentioned in these books, we’re…sacrifices or vessels. We’re things, tools to use, a means to an end.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

2021 marks a century of women being involved with the Cthulhu Mythos. From “Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter to She Walks In Shadows (2015) and Dreams From The Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2015), through all of the women who Lovecraft collaborated with and ghostwrote for, the women fans who wrote poems and stories and novels of the Mythos over the decades expanding and exploring the shared world. Women were there from the beginning…and they are still here, still writing, still creating new art, fiction, poetry, etc.

For all that women have made their mark in the literature of Lovecraftian fiction, the place of women within the Mythos has been less explored. Many authors have expanded on Lovecraft’s original stories and characters in various ways. “The Head of T’la-yub” (2015) by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas offers a new way of looking at “The Mound”; “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales explores patriarchy in Innsmouth; “Magna Mater” (2015) by Arinn Dembo posits a matriarchial twist on “Arthur Jermyn”; “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron offer two different interpretations of Mamie Bishop from “The Dunwich Horror.” The story of women in the Mythos has been recast, reexamined, expanded and elaborated upon; their legacies continue to grow.

Yet very rarely is this a case of women within the stories on a journey of discovery for the women that came before them. We don’t often see female characters confront the fact that the stories of Keziah Mason, Lavinia Whateley, and Marceline Bedard within the fictional universe are few, and mostly related by men. A hypothetical woman student, searching for women cultists, might be hard-pressed to find anything definitive about what role women played in the rites and ceremonies of the cult of Cthulhu. Historical sexism is alive and well in Lovecraft country.

As we walked between them, she said, “It wasn’t deliberate.” She glanced at me sideways. “Most of the time, at least. Our works have been discarded and destroyed because they were simply considered unimportant or uninteresting. They were lost to history through accident and neglect as often as malice. They’ve gone unarchived in libraries, uncollected in museums for those same reasons. But the dreamlands are ours.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

In The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray, the Salem Witch Trials are attributed to the persecution of an actual coven. Those Salem witches, both the real women who died and the fictional counterparts they inspired, like Keziah Mason in “The Dreams in the Witch House,” have left descendents—and a stamp on the collective memory. To some, like Lovecraft’s unnamed correspondent who claimed descent from Mary Easty, witchcraft was real—or at least something she wanted to be real. A spiritual heritage that she could be a part of.

Corbie’s “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” is similar to “Down into Silence” (2018) by Storm Constantine in that there is a wistfulness to it. In a contemporary, mundane world with smartphones and the internet, the legends of Arkham’s witch-haunted streets seems far away, and perhaps a bit silly. In her version of Arkham, which could easily fit in the same world as Constantine’s Innsmouth, students grown at failed rituals and wonder if the fault is in them…or if there just isn’t any magic in the first place. No deeper truth to learn.

Is it the case that the Mythos isn’t real—or is it just not for women?

In many ways, Corbie’s answer to that reflects the truth of women’s continued contributions to the Mythos. While their work may be overlooked or forgotten for a time, it is still there—and they are still there, waiting to be discovered. Sometimes with a little help from their friends, sisters, fellow initiates and would-be-cultists. It’s not just that women are an intimate and vital part of creating the Mythos, but they are an intimate and vital part of the fictional universe of the Mythos. You do not have a Dunwich horror without Lavinia Whateley.

Corbie’s approach to the story is multi-layered, bordering on the metafictional. While she’s keeping it strictly within the confines of the fictional universe where Arkham and Miskatonic University are real, there are contemporary sensibilities at play in how she re-interprets some of the events and characters. Marceline Bedard of “Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, for example, is described as:

“Murdered,” she said, “for perceived sins of ancestry rather than the sins of her voluntary commission.”
—J. Lily Corbie, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” (2021)

As a narrative, “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” is ultimately an extended induction, both for the protagonist Lizza and for the readers. No Merlin is here to guide a young Arthur to the sword in the stone, no Hagrid appears to say: “You’re a wizard, Harry.” If Lizza and her friends want to be witches in the Lovecraftian vein, they have to find out how to open that door themselves…and it is every bit as perilous, damaging, and difficult one might expect. It’s not enough to copy the words from the old books and say them at the right time.

The real question we are left with…the stories yet to be told…are what Lizza might do with her Silver Key, once she gets it. Those should be worth reading.

J. Lily Corbie’s “Women Who Live Between the Worlds” was published on her blog on 1 May 2021.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“The Book of Fhtagn” (2021) by Jamie Lackey

I’d thought that changing the ghost to a scion of the Elder Gods made the play more relatable, and that changing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern into mad cultists had added a bit of reality. But maybe that was just me.
—Jamie Lackey, “The Book of Fhtagn”

It’s not just her. Lovecraft may not have literally rewritten Shakespeare to dd in elements of his own Mythos, but he did have an interpretation of the Bard’s most famous depiction of madness which dovetails nicely with Lackey’s philosophical approach to Innsmouth in “The Book of Fhtagn”:

Continuing in the dramatick line, but ascending the scale several degrees, I find “Hamlet” a most absorbing character, even as you do. It is hard for me to give an original estimate or opinion, since other commentators’ opinions are so abundant; but I find in Hamlet a rare, delicate, & nearly poetical mind, filled with the highest ideals and pervaded by the delusion (common to all gentle & retired characters unless their temperament be scientific & predominantly rational—which is seldom the case with poets) that all humanity approximates such a standard as he conceives. All at once, however, man’s inherent baseness becomes apparent to him under the most soul-trying circumstances; exhibiting itself not in the remote world, but in the person of his mother & his uncle, in such a manner as to convince him most suddenly & most vitally that there is no good in humanity. Well may he question life, when the perfidiousness of those whom he has reason to believe the best of mortals, is so cruelly obtruded on his notice. Having had his theories of life founded on mediaeval and pragmatical conceptions, he now loses that subtle something which impels persons to go on in the ordinary currents; specifically, he loses the conviction that the usual motives & pursuits of life are more than empty illusions or trifles. Now this is not “madness“—I am sick of hearing fools & superficial criticks prate about “Hamlet’s madness”. It is really a distressing glimpse of absolute truth. But in effect, it approximates mental derangement. Reason is unimpaired, but Hamlet no longer sees any occasion for its use. He perceives the objects & events about him, & their relation to each other & to himself, as clearly as before; but his new estimate of their importance, and his lack of any aim or desire to pursue an ordinary course amongst them, impart to his point of view such a contemptuous, ironical singularity that he may well be thought a madman by mistake. He sums up this position himself when he says:

“How weary, stale, flat, & unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world
Fie on’t! ah, Fie! ’tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank & gross in Nature
Possess it merely.”

—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 14 Nov 1918, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 219-220
Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Act I, Scene 2.

There is a kind of depth in the philosophy of the Lovecraft Mythos which is rarely explored in fiction. Scott R. Jones went into it in When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spiritualityand Randolph Partain in Lessons From An Indifferent Cosmos: How Cthulhu Can Help You Be A Better Human. Few look beyond the self-blinded earthgazers who see Cthulhu as an evil that must be vanquished, or Innsmouth as a place of horror that has to be escaped rather than a place of dark beauty to be explored and appreciated.

Which is exactly the choice that Jamie Lackey presents in “The Book of Fhtagn.”

The closest works of comparison are probably Innsmouth (2019) by Megan James and “Down into Silence” (2018) by Storm Constantine. With “The Book of Fhtagn,” they present an Innsmouth not as it was, but as it is or might be. A contemporary Innsmouth where the Mythos coexists with smartphones and pumpkin spice, high school plays and global warming. Where James and Constantine play up the domestic and tourist angles, however, Lackey leans into the darker aspect of things: what if it’s not just about being born in Innsmouth, or visiting it? What if there’s a choice involved in becoming a full member of the community? Personal sacrifices to be made? Which begs deep questions about Lovecraft’s philosophy, of going through the motions of daily life when we are all just temporary, meaningless things on a cosmic scale of time.

And, for a teenager in high school, what the heck to do with the rest of their life.

I had gone into the ocean, and a part of me would now live there forever.
—Jamie Lackey, “The Book of Fhtagn”

Like Lovecraft’s Hamlet, Lackey’s Kimberely gets her glimpse of absolute truth—and finds in that contemplation of how small and pointless the mundanity of life is, a certain freedom of detachment from everyday things—and in time she finds the courage to embrace her new purpose.

Jamie Lackey’s “The Book of Fhtagn” is published in the Fall 2021 issue of Starward Shadows Quarterly.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” (2013) by Lisa Morton

“You can best me at dice, girl, but let’s see how well you do in my bed.”

She’d grinned, but Amarkosa had shouted from the bar, “You, sir, would be well advised to release her arm while you’ve still got one of your own.” The spectators had all guffawed, but the barbarian had flushed and yanked Zolamin close. “I think I can handle this—”

When she broke the bottle of ale over his head, he was only stunned—but when he found the jagged bottleneck pressed to his throat, he’d sobered up quickly. “You can leave like a good boy,” Zolamin told him, “or you can leave like a dead man. Your choice.”
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013) 111

Pedants can argue whether or not Clark Ashton Smith’s stories of Hyperborea count as sword & sorcery; stories like “The Seven Geases” are replete with sorcery, but little swordplay. As with his contemporaries like Robert E. Howard, C. L. Moore, E. R. Eddision, Lord Dunsany, Poul Anderson, J. R. R. Tolkien, Smith took inspiration from Orientalist fiction such as the 1,001 Nights and epic tales such as the Prose Eddas. Their settings of Pegāna and Elf-land, Witchland and Demonland, Middle Earth, the Hyborian and Thurian Ages, Hyperborea and Poiseidonis are exotic fantasy-lands, filled with thieves, warriors, wizards, and monsters. Each of them added to a growing fantasy milieu which blossomed in roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, and inspired the huge resurgence in fantasy settings which continues today.

What differed for each writer was the approach. Howard’s tales of Conan the Cimmerian, Kull of Atlantis, and and Solomon Kane are action-packed, bloody, dark, with a gritty, hardboiled American sensibility. Clark Ashton Smith’s stories such as “The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” and “The Black Abbot of Puthuum” are more sardonic, less focused on bloodshed, giving more detail to the descriptions of gems and cruelty, to sorcery and horror. If Howard’s tales are heroic fantasy, driven by protagonists that live by their swords and their wits, Smith is closer to dark fantasy, with few heroes to triumph, where many of the main characters are undone by their own hubris and unbridled desires.

Lisa Morton’s Zolamin shares a literary lineage with Howard’s Valeria (“Red Nails”) and Bêlit (“The Queen of the Black Coast”) and Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, in that she is a woman warrior and mercenary; but the setting of the story and the overall tone is definitely Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea…though a little more explicit than Smith could ever publish:

She remembered her mother, forced into a life of prostitution after her parents had traded her at the age of ten for a pair of oxen. Zolamin’s mother had borne her while still a teen; her father could have been any of dozens of men. Determined that her daughter would not follow in her footsteps, mother had done her best to disguise the child’s gender and raised her as a boy […]
—Lisa Morton, “Zolamin and the Mad God” in Deepest, Darkest Eden 114

Zolamin’s backstory is essential to her character for this story, because the Mad God plays on her ambitions, small and different as they are. Her character drives the story, and if it is not quite hardboiled fantasy in the vein of Dashiell Hammet’s Red Harvest with swords, it is still a respectable entry in a fairly small body of work: stories set in the worlds of Clark Ashton Smith, and striving to capture some of the mood of his tales rather than pastiche the way he wrote them. Like “Hode of the High Place” (1984) by Jessica Amanda Salmonson, it isn’t sword-skill which determines the course of the story as much as choices made which are a bit darker and more psychologically driven. There are scenes of action but they are often anti-climactic, interrupted by the visions of the Mad God, and that in itself is part of why the story works, because Zolamin has to decide how to handle the messy affair she has stumbled into…and unlike Conan and the Tower of the Elephant, there is no mercy to be dealt out here.

“Zolamin and the Mad God” was published in Deepest, Darkest Eden: New Tales of Hyberborea (2013). It has not yet been reprinted.


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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

The Shuttered Room (1966) by Julia Withers

Incidentally, I’ve just sold Heritage Productions THE SHUTTERED ROOM. No doubt they’ll flesh out the “romance” between Dunwich girl and Innsmouth girl to give it “body” and we’ll have a shilling shocker out of it, but I couldn’t care less, really….
—August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 6 Feb 1964, Letters to Arkham 170

“The Shuttered Room,” the title story for the collection The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959), is arguably Derleth’s greatest work of fanfiction. While originally billed as one of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations,” and Derleth had claimed to base it on unspecified notes by Lovecraft. In one letter, Derleth described it as:

[…] wedding of the Innsmouth and Dunwich themes, as manifestly HPL intended to do, judging by his scant notes.
—August Derleth to Felix Stefanile, August 11, 1958, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Whether or not these notes actually existed is open to speculation; no surviving letters suggests Lovecraft had any intention to unite the two themes. Nevertheless, in 1958 Derleth sat down to write the story (A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 215, 231). The result is not his best Mythos story, or even his best pastiche, but probably the best fanfiction story that Derleth would ever write, a literal union of the Whateley and Marsh family trees from “The Dunwich Horror” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” paying detailed homage to both.

In the 1960s, August Derleth and Arkham House began to have some success in selling the film rights to various Lovecraft & related properties, resulting in five films:

Despite the fact that every film except The Shuttered Room was distributed by American International Productions, this wasn’t an early effort at a cinematic universe or franchise along the lines of the Universal monsters. While a couple of the films shared a few elements such as the Necronomicon, each was produced separately and without any direct tie-ins to the others in the form of characters, sets, props, or storylines.

The films all received different marketing promotions and led to the creation of associate media: Die, Monster, Die! got a comic book adaptation and there was an Italian fotonovela created for Curse of the Crimson Altar, for example. In 1966, released before the film came out, The Shuttered Room received a film novelization—as a kind of Gothic romance.

The novel was written by “Julia Withers,” a pseudonym used by prolific novelist and ghostwriter Jerrold Mundis who had worked on several different screenplay novelizations in the late 1960s. It’s difficult to tell how successful the slim paperback (only 156 pages) was. It is even more difficult to tell if Mundis ever bothered to read Derleth’s original story. Probably not; there is little enough let of Derleth’s original story in the screenplay by D. B. Ledrov and Nathaniel Tanchuck. Much of the best writing in the short story is in the descriptive passages that Derleth wrote so well, and the best part of the film is the cinematography; the novel lacks both.

The Shuttered Room (novel) is a very barebones kind of contemporary thriller dressed up (at least in terms of the cover) as a kind of Gothic romance, where family secrets, an old building, and a family curse threaten a nice young couple. There is no Mythos content beyond the name of Dunwich itself—here an isolated island rather than a town. Even “Whateley” is rendered as “Whately,” and there is no reference to Innsmouth at all. What Mundis does add above and beyond what is in the film is a touch of the grotesque, some backstory that either never made it to the final film or was cut out, and one important thing…

There, squatting in the midst of the tumbled bedding from that long-abandoned bed, sat a monstrous, leathery-skinned creature that was neither frog nor man, one gorged with food, with blood still slavery from its batrachian jaws and upon its webbed fingers—a monstrous entity that had strong, powerfully long arms, grown from its bestial body like those of a frog, and tapering off into a man’s hands, save for the webbing between the fingers…
—August Derleth, “The Shuttered Room” in The Watchers Out of Time 158

Something vaguely resembling a woman crouched in that doorway. Its hair was long and matted and tangled. A tattered filthy garment hung from its twisted body. Its eyes were large and bulbous. Its nose was non-existent, only two gaping holes. A slit with jagged teeth served for a mouth. It’s skin was leathery and cracked—scale-like, actually—and it glistened with moisture.
—Julia Withers (Jerrod Mundis), The Shuttered Room 149

Imagine trying to describe a Deep One/Whateley hybrid, in a setting which has already expunged every reference to Innsmouth and to an audience that has no familiarity with “The Dunwich Horror.” The solution in Mundis’ The Shuttered Room was to describe the nameless Whately child as a monstrous freak: “stillborn…or it should have been…but it lived.”

“Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny,” as Lovecraft would put it. The idea was that living things re-experience the stages of evolution as they grow; so that human embryos have gills…tails…which are lost as they develop. The idea that an embryo might get “stuck” at a certain stage and yet successfully be born and grow to adulthood is not unique to The Shuttered Room novel. In fact, it is strongly reminiscent of the 1953 horror film The Maze—and one has to wonder if Derleth might not have taken a bit of inspiration from this film too. Some years after Derleth wrote “The Shuttered Room,” Ramsey Campbell mentioned the film to Derleth:

There have been movies with a definite slant toward the conceptions of the Mythos, however […] there was the one starring Richard Carlson titled THE MAZE, which was about the hideous frog-creature which is kept and fed in an ancient castle, and finally turns out to be the first in a line who now live in the castle!
—Ramsey Campbell to August Derleth, 10 Aug 1961, Letters to Arkham 12-13

Did Derleth borrow from The Maze? Did Jerrold Mundis? In such a case as this, where the original work has been so translated, and so changed in the transformation from short story to screenplay to short novel, it’s difficult to say…but the various works stand as distinct iterations of a very odd cadet line of the Mythos.

The film was not so creative. Or perhaps it just wasn’t in the budget. The company forewent any supernatural or preternatural explanation; there was no monster, and almost no explanation. In that sense, at least, the novel is an improvement on the film, or at least a step closer to Derleth’s original story. The idea of a madwoman trapped in the attic is closer to Jane Eyre than Cthulhu; perhaps that’s why the marketing of The Shuttered Room (novel) bears the hallmarks of the Gothic romances of its day, rather than any effort to market it to Lovecraft fans. The novel stands as an example of how truly weird and diffuse Lovecraftian influence can get.


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

Dagger of Blood (1997) by John Blackburn

They that write as a trade to please the whim of the day, they are like sailors that work at the rafts only to warm their hands and to distract their thoughts from their certain doom; their rafts go all to pieces before the ship breaks up.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)

Popular fiction, whether it be for pulp magazines, comic books, or pornography, is ephemeral. Precious few authors have the kind of posthumous renaissance that H. P. Lovecraft has experienced. Even those who build up a considerable body of work, or a dedicated follow, often sink out of sight once they die. Their works aren’t reprinted. Work goes uncollected, unread, forgotten.

John Blackburn died in 2006. His raft is breaking up.

In 1989, Blackburn self-published his own comic, Coley on Voodoo Island, acting as writer, artist, and letterer. While normally categorized among gay comics, Coley is bisexual, or maybe pansexual; a living sex icon, his very presence tends to attract everyone, regardless of sexuality or gender identity. Some folks might characterize Coley—the ageless, immortal, six-pack-abs voodoo sex god with a large penis, a bottomless libido, and a constant parade of sexual partners—as a form of wish fulfillment. Yet it’s wish fulfillment in the same way that Conan the Cimmerian, or Captain America, or the Vampire Lestat are; Coley embodies a pure fantasy, a larger-than-life figure who moves through the world, and in so doing changes it.

The first four issues of Coley’s adventures were self-published by Blackburn; in 1992 Fantagraphics which was publishing a great number of alternative, independent, and erotic comics picked up Coley, reprinting the first adventures and then new ones. While a supernatural fantasy element was present from the beginning, the Cthulhu Mythos slid into the mix in 1993 with the two-issue series Idol of Flesh, where Coley runs up against a cult of Shub-Niggurath.

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Idol of Flesh #2 (1993)

As an artist, Blackburn puts a lot of work into his hatching; you can see some influence from superhero comics in the often skin-tight clothes and Coley’s heroic proportions, and this sometimes goes for other characters as well. Compositions tend to be focused: the reader’s eye is usually drawn to the center of each panel, each pane, and backgrounds usually fade out to dark hatching during the frequent erotic scenes or conversational back-and-forth. Stylistically very different from Le Pornomicon (2005) by Logan Kowalsky or Insania Tenebris (2020) by Raúlo Cáceres, and many readers might fairly judge it to be almost crude by comparison, it might be better to compare Blackburn’s work with underground cartoonists of the ’70s in terms of style and technique.

The plot of the series revolves around Coley, even when he isn’t on the page. The other characters are almost invariably attracted to him, but have to figure out for themselves what that means, what their relationship is about, particularly as Coley—while a loyal friend, and falling in love easily—has basically zero interest in monogamous relationships, and doesn’t cater to anyone else’s efforts to constrain or define his behavior. This tends to put him at odds with local authority figures, such as the police, religious types, and general bigots—and in a few cases, attracts supernatural forces.

The Cthulhu Mythos intrudes on Coley and his gaggle of associates in the three-issue Dagger of Blood series in 1997. This was the final standalone comic produced featuring Coley, although Fantagraphics would publish three additional omnibus albums Coley Running Wild from 1997-2003. Coley’s earlier encounter with the cult of Shub-Niggurath put him on the cultist radar, and he now has to deal with another descendant of the Old Ones.

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Dagger of Blood #2

While the story takes many X-rated breaks, the plot takes a turn strongly reminiscent of the post-war Men’s Adventure Pulps of the late 1940s and 50s—though not one that would probably ever have passed the editors of those magazines.

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Dagger of Blood #2

Old Nazi mad scientist in a temple of the Old Ones deep inside a jungle probably sounds like an exploitation script treatment even before you add the pornstars, voodoo sex god, flagellation scenes, interracial relationships, body modification, sex changes, and bloody violence…but there is something more interesting at work here.

One of the things that sets Coley apart from the other characters in this series is that he is completely accepting of both his body and his sexuality; it helps that by the standards of the characters in the comic, he’s basically perfect: young, slim, muscled, big genitalia, etc. and he maintains it with seemingly zero effort. By contrast, many of the other characters are not all happy with their body or their sexuality. The main antagonist Joquatoth is dealing with the effects of his inhuman heritage—and wants to stay human. If he wasn’t deliberately set up as evil, he could be seen as an almost tragic figure, facing parallel issues of body image issues that affect many transgender folk  as they deal with issues like puberty, or strive to achieve a body closer to their gender identity via hormones and surgery.

Blackburn doesn’t explore these issues in anything like depth; the castration scene is a setup for a sub-plot where the genitalia of two characters are swapped: Coley’s lover Lonny gets a vagina, and the the mostly lesbian Kit gets his penis. Lonny and Kit’s introspection at these drastic and fantastical changes to their bodies is less than profound…but it’s there.

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Dagger of Blood #3

The idea of transsexual or intersex characters that don’t conform strictly to a sex or gender binary are nothing new, not even in Lovecraft’s time. His friend Samuel Loveman wrote “The Hermaphrodite” in 1926, some pulp stories like Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) and Lovecraft’s own “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales Jan 1937) play with gender-changes, albeit in very non-explicit and largely sexless ways. It takes a certain amount of artistic freedom to actually depict and address some of these issues, and that just wasn’t possible under the editorial and mail censorship of the 1930s, even if there had been writers among Lovecraft’s correspondents and devotees who had desired to address such issues.

Which is one of the things that makes Dagger of Blood stand out. Yes, it’s very blatantly pornography, with a rare page that goes by without nudity or some sexual act; it’s a comic book and not a novel, which places it in that weird intersection of being doubly disposable for being taboo in subject matter and a medium often derided at the time as childish or trash (though that was slowly changing). The Mythos material is slight, being two storylines involving cultists with semi-human leaders. There is a tentacle erotic scene, which might owe something to the popularity of Japanese manga and anime like Toshio Maeda’s La Blue Girl (manga 1989-1992, original video animation 1992-1993).

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Dagger of Blood #3

Yet it’s for that exact reason that Dagger of Blood has its charms, and can even address some of these issues of gender, sexuality, relationships, and body image when contemporary Mythos works largely didn’t…because Blackburn didn’t have to subscribe to the same editorial taboos, the social norms and mores that he would if he had been working for Marvel Comics or even Playboy. Working on his own he had more creative freedom to get really weird—and that kind of growth can be important. Even if Blackburn’s Coley opus isn’t destined to stand the test of time, it is one of Dunsany’s rafts set adrift…and who knows what it might inspire, if it does survive a little while longer?

Our ships were all unseaworthy from the first.

There goes the raft that Homer made for Helen.
—Lord Dunsany, “The Raft-Builders” (1915)

John Blackburn’s Dagger of Blood #1-3 were published by Eros Comix in 1997; they were collected in Coley Running Wild, Book Three: Hardthrob (2003).


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

“The Tale of Toad Loop” (1998) by Stanley C. Sargent

When I first began writing weird fiction, just under a decade ago, I never expected any of my stories would see print. I wrote tales that I, as a reader, would like to read but could rarely find.
—Stanley C. Sargent, “Author’s Preface” in Ancient Exhumations +2 (2004) x

“The Tale of Toad Loop” is one of Sargent’s most-reprinted tales. It was first published online in the webzine Nightscapes (January 1998), and later that year in the print magazine Dark Legacy (August 1988). It featured in his first collection of stories, Ancient Exhumations (1999), and its slightly expanded sequel Ancient Exhumations+2 (2004). The anthology Eldritch Blue: Love & Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos (2004) reprinted it, and the year after that it appeared in The Tsathoggua Cycle: Terror Tales of the Toad God (2005).

The relative success of the story in the early 2000s, and the reason why it’s been mostly forgotten by editors since is fairly straightforward: “The Tale of Toad Loop” might be the quintessential Mythos pastiche.

Which is not in any way a negative criticism. The story is not poorly written, it does not focus solely on the surface aspects of Mythos fiction, makes no effort to ape Lovecraft’s style, nor does it overload the reader with dozens of references to other stories. It is not bad pastiche. Yet it is also recognizable as a work in a distinct tradition, in a certain style, in imitation of what has come before.

“Toad Loop” owes its existence to “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft, August Derleth’s novel The Lurker at the Threshold (or at least, the fragment “The Round Tower” by Lovecraft which Derleth incorporated into the story), and through that snippet Clark Ashton Smith’s Tsathoggua. It has a style reminiscent of Derleth’s “The Shuttered Room” or “Witches’ Hollow,” the idea of carving out a new corner of the Mythos with connections to the old familiar stories. Familiar themes in unfamiliar places. Old wine in new bottles.

When read in the context of those stories, “The Tale of Toad Loop” stands out as perfectly competent and of a piece with those works. It fits into the Mythos neatly as a lost puzzle piece, lending a slightly new outline to the picture. Sargent is not an eager fanboy expounding some pet theory of the Mythos. The prose is slightly more explicit than Lovecraft or Derleth would have used in terms of language, gore, and sexuality, but otherwise it has the same feel of a piece that was written in those decades between the death of Lovecraft in 1937 and the first non-Arkham House Cthulhu Mythos anthology, The Disciples of Cthulhu, in 1976.

Tastes change.

Like “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff, Sargent’s story is essentially a rehash of a familiar Mythos narrative: a rural locale, a sorcerer that is a little too successful at summoning, a young woman who ends up conceiving the inconceivable. In this case, Pritchy Kwik stands in for Lavinia Whateley, and is given even less agency—not even a line of dialogue—and there are a few other criticisms that might be leveled against the plot:

The Injuns claimed the Circle was built for some kind of unearthly critter that come down from the sky on occasion. Toadaggwa, they called it, sayin’ it put the stones to questionable uses at certain times of the year. Truth is, they were scared shitless of the place without really knowing why. They gave the Loop the widest possible berth, swearin’ the stones were the works of demons here long before any of the tribes. None of the whites confessed to belief in such savage superstitions, yet we all steered clear of the Loop just like the redskins did.
—Stanley C. Sargent, “The Tale of Toad Loop” in Ancient Exhumations +2 (2004) 109-110

It is weird to think about writing “Injuns” and “redskins” in the 1990s. Rationally, Sargent was trying to keep within the vocabulary and viewpoint of a rustic yokel in Madland County (based on southern Ohio), at some unspecified date (references to “Captain Marsh” of Innsmouth suggests the 1850s). It is the kind of reference that wouldn’t have raised an eyebrow for decades in the United States…but cultural syntax shifts. Would an editor let “Injuns” pass today?

In the broader context of the story, this is an incidental detail. Yet it is symptomatic of the issue for the story as a whole. “The Tale of Toad Loop” is a perfectly competent little tale, but it broaches no new ground, not in the characterization, or the storytelling style. It is a variation on a very familiar theme, but the theme is too familiar, and while there’s a twist in the end and the framing, it doesn’t stand out as particularly genius or original in the sense of Sargent’s “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997).

While “The Tale of Toad Loop” more or less fits in Eldritch Blue, it would feel old-fashioned and out of place in Cthulhurotica or Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath. There are any number of tales of cosmic miscegenation in the Mythos already; it is hard to see what Sargent adds to the subject that is new, novel, revolutionary, or thrilling in that particular. Neither the sex nor the gore rises to the level of notability in a market with extreme horror, erotic horror, and splatterpunk. It is hard to judge the shift in the tastes of consumers of Mythos fiction, but it is usually excellence of ideas as much as excellence of prose that makes tales stand out, and “The Tale of Toad Loop” may be doomed to future obscurity simply because it was too successful at being excellent pastiche of an older style of Mythos fiction which has largely fallen out of fashion.

It is worth pointing out that “The Tale of Toad Loop” is not exemplary of all of Sargent’s fiction. He was a creative and capable writer who experimented with style and subject, continuing to grow and develop throughout his literary career. “The Black Brat of Dunwich” (1997) and “The Insider” (1998) are both good stories that still deserve to be read.

Readers interested in determining for themselves whether Sargent’s style is out of step with the current vogue of Mythos fiction, the story may be read for free at Nightscapes.


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

“Massacre à Miskatonic High School” (2008) by Jean-Jacques Dzialowski & Dimitri Fogolin

Depuis la nuit des temps,
Des dieux noirs corrompent notre monde.
Ce sont les Grands Anciens.

La folie est leur visage.
L’horreur est leur royaume.
Leur éveil approache…
Since the dawn of time,
The dark gods corrupt our world.
These are the Old Ones.

Madness is their face.
Horror is their kingdom.
Their awakening approaches…
Back cover, Les Mondes de Lovecraft

MondesLes Mondes de Lovecraft (“The Worlds of Lovecraft,” 2008, Soleil) is a standalone French-language comic anthology of stories set in the world of H. P. Lovecraft, including an adaptation of Lovecraft’s “Dagon.” Two of the stories in the book are the work of Jean-Jacques Dzialowski (writer) & Dimitri Fogolin (artist): “Le Signe sans Nom” (“The Nameless Sign”) and “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” (“Miskatonic High School Massacre”). The two works are complementary, in that they tell different sides of the same story from different perspectives. “Le Signe sans Nom” is given after-the-fact, during the deposition of a Sergeant McDermot, who responded to the events at Miskatonic High. “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” on the other hand gives the perspective of the school shooters. 

 

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The 1999 Columbine High School Massacre casts a long shadow over culture and pop culture alike. The media blitz helped to inspire numerous copycats; partisan politicians and pundits in the United States tend to quickly politicize shootings to minimize arguments over gun ownership as happened in the aftermath of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School Shootings. Comic books have rarely touched on such controversial and emotionally-charged territory; DC Comics notoriously cancelled the Hellblazer story “Shoot” by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez, and Andy Lanning in 1999 over concerns of backlash.

At the bottom of most coverage of such shootings is one question: Why did they do it? What drove these kids to kill other kids?

Real-world causes are complex: psychological issues, a disturbed home life, access to firearms are all contributing factors. In the worlds of H. P. Lovecraft however…it’s rather simple.

They want the books.

Toute sa vie, grand-père a cherché les livres. Il en avait trouvé certains et il m’a laissé plein de notes…

All his life, grandfather searched for books. He had found some and he left me lots of notes …

In real life, the two Columbine Massacre shooters committed suicide in the library. In this Miskatonic Massacre, Dzialowski and Fogolin have something similar happen, but for very different reasons. Taking a page from Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” the two shooters want access to the ancient tomes contained (somewhat inexplicably) in the Miskatonic High School library.

“Massacre à Miskatonic High School” is nine pages; “Le Signe sans Nom” is eight. The two works should really be considered as parts of the same story, and being parallel narratives, they have visual and textual echoes and references to one another—the final panels are largely identical. Fogolin, however, approaches each story separately. “Le Signe sans Nom” is darker, with more blacks, greys, and blues, while “Massacre” is brighter, dominated by yellows and greens—appropriate enough given the prominence of Hastur in this chapter of the story. The layouts for both stories also start the same: a regular nine-panel grid, which breaks down in the subsequent pages.

Given the subject matter, there is a certain amount of commendable reticence to show too much. We see bullets, blood, dead bodies, but we don’t actually see anyone get shot on the page, in close up or detail. Readers can be appalled at what is happening without seeing every last bullet hole or shard of bone. At the same time, this gloss of violence and the digital coloring lends a certain muddiness to the compositions; one wonders how it would have been different if Jacen Burrows or Raulo Cáceres might have handled the same material.

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Lovecraft never quite tackled such a mundane horror as a school shooting. Yet the horror in this story is a little different from real life. What if Wilbur Whateley had reached the Necronomicon? Would he have succeeded in clearing off the Earth, or would he have ended up as these two did? The central issue isn’t just the horrors perpetrated, but that the two shooters in this story very nearly succeeded. If someone had been a little more competent…how much more damage could they have wrought?

Perhaps more importantly, what’s to stop the same thing from happening again?

“Le Signe sans Nom” and “Massacre à Miskatonic High School” are both published in Les Mondes de Lovecraft. It has not been translated into English or reprinted, as far as I have been able to ascertain.


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

Insania Tenebris (2020) by Raúlo Cáceres

This dossier collects research on the nineteenth-century engravings of a mysterious Goya student that represent impossible beings and disturbing anachronisms.

Following in the footsteps of the Genius of Providence and inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos, the group of writers The Bastards of Abdul Alhazred and the cartoonist Raúlo Cáceres come together to recreate this universe of madness and darkness.
—Back cover copy, Insania Tenebris, translated from the Spanish

Spanish artist Raúlo Cáceres is no stranger to Lovecraft, and though many fans might not recognize him by name, there’s no mistaking his incredibly detailed, explicit style that often takes horror and eroticism for its subject. His comics and graphic novels in this vein include Elizabeth Bathory, Cuentos Mórbidos, Justine y Juliette (after the Marquis de Sade novels), and Agues Calientes, which have been translated into several languages. Less pornographic but still fun are books like Galeria de los Engendros Album de Cromos de los Monstruos, an album of monsters in the vein of 1970s and 80s compilations for kids.

For English-speaking audiences, Cáceres’ most notable work would include his work on Crossed, Crécy, and The Extinction Parade, but he also provided some gorgeous covers for Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence which showcase not just his skill and style, but his deep appreciation for the details of Lovecraft’s Mythos.

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Cáceres was also the artist on the Lovecraftian horror series Code Pru, written by Garth Ennis, and Ennis/Cáceres continued the storyline in the anthology book Cinema Purgatorio, and provided illustrations for the Lovecraftian alien gods of Spanish roleplaying game Eden.

In 2020, Raúlo Cáceres published the first volume of Insania Tenebris: Textos de Los Bastards de Abdul Alhazered (Shadowy Madness: Texts from the Bastards of Abdul Alhazred), a 32-page collaborative project where multiple Spanish writers provided short text pieces to accompany Cáceres’ unique vision of Lovecraft’s Mythos—which takes the form of a series of found documents. Imagine stumbling across a dossier of evidence proving the existence of the Mythos, from ancient times through World War 2 and to the present day—illustrated in glorious and disturbing detail.

It is these collaborators who are the “Bastards of Alhazred”: Gabriel Soriano, Emilio Gómez, J. M. Morcillo, La doctora X, Gómez Navarro, Tito Alberto, and of course, Raúlo Cáceres himself.

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En el lecho de un ataud asiste
sobre absorta dama, su piel mancilla
un lúgubre gul perpetra y resiste.

In the bed of a coffin attends
Above lost lady, her skin stained
A melancholy ghoul persists and remains.
—”Despertar oscuro” by Emilio Gómez, Insania Tenebris 10

Like many extreme artists, Cáceres is at his best when there are no holds barred—but just because he can show as much graphic detail as he wishes to doesn’t mean every scene has to be fit for a death metal album or a storyboard for a graphic erotic horror film. Look at the names on the niches in the wall: Clark Ashton Smith in the top left, the name “Agatha Tremoth” on the coffin lid. This is an homage and illustration for Smith’s “The Nameless Offspring,” a ghoul story that Lovecraft praised.

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En dicho grabado, y tal como se describe en el texto de Notre-Dame, destaca la figure de un caballero ritualista invocador de seres oscuros que, a través de la utilización de plegarias de sangre, buscará la intersección con seres del más allá, valiéndose para ello de la lectura del libro prohibido De Vermis Misteriis, utilizado como llave conductora a la mediación interdimensional.

In said engraving, and as described in the Notre-Dame text, the figure of a knight ritually invoking dark beings stands out who, through the use of bloody prayers, will seek the intersection with beings from beyond, availing himself by reading from the forbidden book De Vermis Misteriis, used as a conductive key to interdimensional mediation.
—”Las cartas de Notre-Dame” by Emilio Gómez, Insania Tenebris 6

There are influences here beyond just Lovecraftian fiction and in-jokes. As with Monster Girl Encyclopedia II (2016) by Kenkou Cross (健康クロス), the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game had an obvious visual influence in the way Cáceres depicts some of his Mythos entities, notably the Night-Gaunts, Mi-Go, and Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath. The nature of the texts are also representative of gaming influence: these are all in-character pieces, found documents, meant to be read and interpreted not as complete stories in and of themselves but as deliberate fragments—like piecing together the clues in a Cthulhu Mythos story, from copied snatches of journals and paintings.

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En esta, encuentra un viejo diario firmado por un tal capitán Pierre Eaudon, escrito en francés, con extraños dibujos de figuras humanas de aspecto reptiloide, cálculos matemáticos, anagramas y las palabras “YIG” y “VALUSIA” repetidas de forma obsesiva a lo largo del texto.

In it, he finds an old diary signed by a certain Captain Pierre Eaudon, written in French, with strange drawings of human figures of reptilian aspect, mathematical calculations, anagrams and the words “YIG” and “VALUSIA” repeated obsessively throughout of the text.
—”Informe de las SS” by J. M. Morcillo, Insania Tenebris 14

There are scenes in this portfolio which might turn a weak stomach or dissuade the prudish; notably a cannibal feast captured in particularly lurid detail, and the final pièce de résistance which captures Cthulhu and his paramour mid-coitus as the acolytes look on…and there are scenes that might make a reader smile, like the nod to death metal church-burning, the Mi-Go and the astronauts…and maybe just the care and detail that went into the written work as well.

For make no mistake, while Cáceres’ art is the main attraction (especially for those who don’t read Spanish), this is a true collaboration and the Bastards deliver appropriately creepy context that adds depth and substance to already fantastic scenes. There is a story here, told in bits and pieces, building up to more than just a portfolio of exquisite artwork. Goya’s student found himself on the trail of something bigger and darker than he could have imagined.

As of this writing, Insania Tenebris (2020) is only on sale in Spain, and has not been translated. A second volume, Insania Tenebris 2, is due to be published in 2021…and if anything, looks more daring and fantastic.

With thanks and appreciation to Iantha Maria Fyolek for her help. Any errors in translation are mine.


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