“Medusa’s Coil” (1939) by Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft

I shall watch for the tale, “Medusa’s Coil,” you mentioned. Regardless of the author, if you instilled into the tale some of the magic of your own pen, it cannot fail to fascinate the readers.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, A Means to Freedom 2.43

Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown was born in Asheville, NC in 1897; in 1914 she married James Reed, and the couple had a son James. At some point in the 1920s the couple divorced, and Zealia Brown-Reed supported herself and her son in Cleveland, OH by writing articles and short stories, and working as a court reporter while taking correspondence courses from Colombia University and the Home Correspondence School.

In 1927, Zealia wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, inquiring into his revision services, beginning a correspondence that would see Lovecraft ghost-write three stories for her: “The Curse of Yig” (1928), “The Mound” (1929), and “Medusa’s Coil” (1930). In 1930, she would marry D. W. Bishop, and Zealia’s correspondence with Lovecraft appears to taper off, although it continued through at least 1936.

In her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953), Zealia is appreciative of Lovecraft’s efforts advice and erudition—although in their letters, published in The Spirit of Revision (2015) it is evident that they had very different interests in terms of writing. Zealia’s interest apparently lay in confession pulps and love stories (“light, domestic fiction in the popular vein”); Lovecraft tried and failed to bend her toward weird fiction. The limit of their meeting-of-the-minds in this regard appears to be their collaborations: Zealia would supply the idea for a story, which Lovecraft would flesh out into a detailed synopsis and then write.

Their first such ghostwriting venture, “The Curse of Yig” was a success, and appeared in the Nov 1929 issue of Weird Tales. The next story however, the lengthy novelette “The Mound,” was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright, and was rejected again after Frank Belknap Long abridged it to make it more salable to the pulp market. While little correspondence regarding the story survives, this also appears to have been the likely fate of “Medusa’s Coil”—which Lovecraft recalls writing in the summer of 1930:

Have no record of dates of “Mound” & “Medusa’s Coil”, but am tolerably certain the former was written in 1929 & the latter in 1930. Indeed, I know the latter date is right, because I did most of the job in Richmond on one of my trips—afternoon after afternoon in Maymont Park. And 1930 was the only time I ever spent a liberal period—nearly a fortnight—in Richmond.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 276

In November 1930, Lovecraft mentions the rejection of a revision story in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, which is presumably “Medusa’s Coil.” (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 280). It was, from all evidence, their final collaborative effort. Zealia Bishop had a bill for Lovecraft’s revision services which she would pay slowly over the next few years, but the two stories he had ghostwritten for her had not sold.

As for the origins of “Medusa’s Coil”:

[…] I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some  housecleaning for me and expaned into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260

The letters to and from Lovecraft concerning the tale do not survive, but Lovecraft’s notes for the story do and read in part:

(1.) Son kills wife with hastily seized machete, hacks off hair in savage rage since he dems this the cause of Marsh’s attraction & also connects it with her hideous nature & malignly magical affiliations—also, with her newly discovered racial identity. But the hair* slithers out of the room of its own volition, as if transformed to some monstrous black snake. At this sight son goes half mad. follows hair up to studio, & sees it coil itself around the slowly recovering Marsh. Hair strangles Marsh—the evil voodoo sorceress having recognised M. as an enemy when she saw the manner in which he had painted her. Son, witnessing this, goes wholly mad. Cowers & mutters around room till father enters. Then the shrieking explanation & the struggle. Son either kills himself or is killed by father. (Attempts to kill both father & self because he thinks family blood contaminated by his marriage to negress.) Father left alone with portrait & bodies & hair. Buries victims of tragedy in cellar & settles down to live as hermit. Picture affects him strangely—he cannot break away from it. He fears hair will emerge vampircally from Marsh’s grave. Sophonisba is sullen—continually wanders into cellar & haunts Marsh’s secret grave, though the servants are not supposed to know that anyone has died there. Marsh, son, & wife supposed to have gone away. Later freed hands servants & chauffeur all changed, money wanes, Sophinisba refuses to leave. Finally dies on Marsh’s cellar grave, muttering. […] Symbols of horror—voodoo—black mass—Cthulhu-cult—&c. &c.—Hair alive with independent life—woman revealed as vampire, lamia, &c. &c.—& unmistakably (surprise to reader as in original text) a negress.
—H. P. Lovecraft, notes for “Medusa’s Coil” in Collected Essays 5.243

As with Lovecraft’s previous ghostwriting job for Zealia, “The Mound,” this story contains explicit references to the Mythos that Lovecraft had created in his own fiction, and which he was encouraging writer-friends like Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard to use. It is set in southern Missouri, far away from Lovecraft’s typical haunts, and is a story that deals very directly with the mores regarding interracial sex in Southern culture:

Romantic young devil, too—full of high notions—you’d call ’em Victorian, now—no trouble at all to make him let the nigger wenches alone.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

Shorn of the weird elements, the story boils down to something like a confession-story: the young heir of a Southern plantation goes off to school and returns with a beautiful and vain wife, and a visit by an artist friend sets the stage for what might be a triangular love affair—and it is worth noting what a departure this work was from Lovecraft’s previous fiction. The whole beginning plot is dependant on human relations, love, courtship and marriage; the spectre of infidelity that lingers between Marceline and Marsh is a very human conflict. Even the macabre twist of murder and worries of revenge from beyond the grave is a Poe-esque touch.

Except for the final, culminating revelation.

It would be too hideous if they knew that the one-time heiress of Riverside—the accursed gorgon or lamia whose hateful crinkly coil of serpent-hair must even now be brooding and twining vampirically around an artist’s skeleton in a lime-packed grave beneath a charred foundation—was faintly, subtly, yet to the eyes of genius unmistakably the scion of Zimbabwe’s most primal grovellers. No wonder she owned a link with that old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a negress.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

“Medusa’s Coil” is a horror story about a mixed-race woman passing in white society. As a plot germ, that by itself is not particularly novel in American literature: Mark Twain examined the cultural and personal impact of the “one drop rule” directly in his novel Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894); Eli Colter’s more macabre story “The Last Horror” about a genius black surgeon who flayed white captives and grafted their skin over his own was published in the Jan 1927 issue of Weird Tales. 

Passing is very specifically a horror aimed at a white audience—and “Medusa’s Coil” is not a nuanced or clever take on the subject. The very mundanity of the reveal undercuts whatever weird atmosphere that Lovecraft had built up at this point. Terminal revelations in stories like “The Dunwich Horror” (written 1928) and “The Whisperer in Darkness” (written 1930) add depth to the horror, the last little piece of information that casts the events of the story in a terrible new light. In “Medusa’s Coil” the reveal bombs completely…although not for lack of trying.

When “Medusa’s Coil” is read with foreknowledge of the ending, it becomes clear that Lovecraft attempted to build up to Zealia’s revelation throughout the story. Her reluctance to speak of her origins, ties to the French colony of Martinique in the Caribbean, and association with African religion all hint at her secret without revealing it. Yet for all that Marceline Bedard comes onto the stage as a femme fatale and sorceress or priestess, her real motivations appear to be exceptionally mundane, straight out of a Brontë novel: to marry into wealth and settle into life as a gentlewoman.

The problem is, Marceline is not Keziah Mason or Asenath Waite; she might be a strange young woman in the household and the servants don’t like her, but she doesn’t appear to actively do anything malicious, or have any particular nefarious plot or intentions, aside from possibly designs on infidelity. Conventional romanticism is only undercut by recurrent mention of how subtly disturbing or off her appearance is to the older de Russy—at least until the affair bloodily ends, and a supernatural element finally enters the picture. The ending is reminiscent of both The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) and “Pickman’s Model” (1927): in art is truth revealed.

We can only guess at how much of the plot was Lovecraft’s own contribution. Certainly he wrote the actual text, and all the references to Cthulhu, Clark Ashton Smith, and Great Zimbabwe in the story are characteristic of his tastes and such matter from his letters. It could well be that the bulk of the macabre elements of the plot were his conception…and whether or not it was contained in Zealia’s initial idea, the final execution is purely Lovecraft’s prose.

There is, at this late date, no point in assigning fault. Zealia apparently suggested an idea starkly mundane and rooted in cultural fears of miscegenation, Lovecraft apparently was willing to pick up that idea and try to write to it. Neither, apparently, was conscious enough of the realities to consider the story from Marceline’s point of view—or perhaps Lovecraft’s efforts to build her up as a genuine supernatural threat simply fall apart when cosmic horror is married so directly, and effectively dependent upon, racial discrimination…and it is worse, in hindsight, when seeing de Russy’s response:

“‘She thought we couldn’t see through—that the false front would hold till we had bartered away our immortal souls. And she was half right—she’d have got me in the end. She was only—waiting. But Frank—good old Frank—was too much for her. He knew what it all meant, and painted it. I don’t wonder she shrieked and ran off when she saw it. It wasn’t quite done, but God knows enough was there.

“‘Then I knew I’d got to kill her—kill her, and everything connected with her. It was a taint that wholesome human blood couldn’t bear. There was something else, too—but you’ll never know that if you burn the picture without looking.
—Bishop & Lovecraft, “Medusa’s Coil”

The straight reading of this is that there was something more to the revelation than just Marceline being mixed-race; that perhaps is the “something else, too” Denis de Russy refers too. But knowing the end, it’s impossible to draw a clear distinction from where Marceline’s connection to the Mythos ends and the racial discrimination begins.

Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t think much of the result, although the typescript was shared with his young friend and correspondent R. H. Barlow, who was a collector of pulp manuscripts:

Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

Of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “The Mound”. It isn’t much of a story anyhow. If I were you I’d read it & send it back to Mrs. B. for the present, so that she can experiment with it as she likes. If she places it, well & good. You can get whatever it appears in. If she doesn’t, you can renew negotiations for the MS.—which she’d probably sell at a reasonable figure….although I wouldn’t give a dime for it myself. As you know, it isn’t a first draught or anything with any associational value.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143

“Medusa’s Coil” was not published during Lovecraft’s lifetime. After his death, Farnsworth Wright made an effort to publish stories and pieces from Lovecraft—even collaborations and ghostwritten works—and in 1939 finally paid Zealia Bishop $120 for the privilege. However, the story that was published was not as Lovecraft had written it.

No wonder she owned a link with the old witch-woman Sophonisba—for, though in deceitfully slight proportion, Marceline was a loathsome, bestial thing, and her forebears had come from Africa.
H. P. Lovecraft Collected Fiction A Variorum Edition Vol. 4: Revisions and Collaborations 298

The original manuscript of “Medusa’s Coil” is not extant. The surviving typed manuscript shows evidence of two different hands (presumably Frank Belknap Long and R. H. Barlow), with pencil edits by August Derleth dating to 1937—including the final line of the story. Bishop & Lovecraft’s original ending would not be read by the public until 1989, when the text restored by S. T. Joshi was published in the revised The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions.

It is an interesting edit, if for no other reason than all the other references to race in the story—more than is typical for Lovecraft, including some fairly lengthy bits of what are supposed to be African-American dialect by Sophonisba, and instances of the N-word—are all left intact. At best, it can be seen as a half-hearted amelioration, an effort to retain the substance of the terminal revelation without the specificity. Maybe that level of overt racial discrimination was too much, even by 1939 standards…or maybe it was simply an unsatisfying ending to a weird tale. We will never know.


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

 

 

 

“Mail Order Bride” (1999) by Ann K. Schwader

Obed finally got her married off by a trick to an Arkham feller as didn’t suspect nothin’. But nobody aoutside’ll hev nothin’ to do with Innsmouth folks naow.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

A significant but often understated plot point of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is the focus on a rather conservative human courtship traditions. The Deep One hybrids of Innsmouth want to spread and breed—marry and have children—and do so within the context and framework of human marriage as understood in the late-19th/early-20th century United States. Alternative arrangements like polygamy or group marriage do not appear in Lovecraft’s story; children (and sex!) out of wedlock are just not under consideration in the story itself, even if they were realities of life in the 1920s.

This focus on rather conventional human marriage brings in to Innsmouth stories an element of domestic drama, as exemplified in stories like “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales, but it also allows writers to explore this aspect of the Mythos through the permutations in human experience…all the weird ways people find to have relationships, just add Deep Ones. Except there is always more to it than that when dealing with Ann K. Schwader.

The premise of “Mail Order Bride” by Ann K. Schwader is right in the title: lonely men like George, Phil, Art, and Tony pay the Island Love Introduction Agency, hoping for quiet Filipina wives to cook and clean and keep the beer cold—but Lupe, Tia, Inez and the other women they marry are from a very different island culture. Part of the craft of the story is the Stepford Wives-esque othering of the Innsmouth brides, the subtle exaggeration of the normal difficulties experienced by couples in these situations: differences in language, culture, whether or not to have kids, staying together.

Robert M. Price in Tales out of Innsmouth and Kevin L. O’Brien in Eldritch Blue: Love and Sex in the Cthulhu Mythos both considered this story an update on the Innsmouth theme “of race-mixing, especially with Asians” (Price), referencing Captain Obed Marsh bringing home a Polynesian wife, and that “the miscegenation is still present, since the women are Deep Ones as well as Filipinos” (O’Brien). While the misidentification of the brides as Filipinas by their husbands is present, the racial politics Price and O’Brien read into the story are a red herring. The brides’ characterization as foreign is a cover for their much deeper alienation from their husbands, a layer of the mystery for the brides’ spouses to peel back, revealing a much more disturbing reality.

Procreation, which is the ultimate apparent goal of the mail-order brides in this story, is a Mythos theme examined in many stories—“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens and more—but Lovecraft’s racism and views on real-world mixed race unions casts a shadow on the much weirder cosmic miscegenation which is a hallmark of “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and its literary descendants. Schwader is accurate to Lovecraft’s overall themes, right down to the idea of using interracial unions as a cover for marriages between human and not-human. Unfortunately, enough old prejudices are still extant that her effort to portray a transposition in gender roles has been mistaken for a regurgitation of racial politics.

It’s gender politics at play in the story…and that goes for the Mythos aspects as well:

This is also one of the few stories where Mother Hydra occupies the stage alone rather than sharing it with Father Dagon, or for that matter being consigned to the wings as is usually the case. This reflects the feminist tone of the story, which is a departure form the way that the creation of human/Deep One hybrids are usually created. The precedent, established by H. P. Lovecraft in “The Shadow Over Innsmouth”, is that human males mated with Deep One females, though it can be assumed that Deep One males got it on with human females as well. The point is that it was the males of either species which initiated the contact. While this is understandable, considering the aggressiveness of the males of both species and that both cultures tend to be male-dominated, it also reinforces the role of the female as the passive victim. In this story these roles are reversed: it is the females, led by a female deity, who initiate the contact and the men who are the passive victims.
—Robert M. Price, Strange Stars & Alien Shadows 128

This is ground that Schwanger would revisit in stories like “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003), and it adds another layer to what is already a compellingly-told role-reversal story. A subtle expansion and re-casting of the Mythos, with Mother Hydra as fertility deity, and the female Deep One hybrids as part of an all-female coven has overtones of Wicca and Goddess-worship, and the cohesiveness of the women is another point of alienation from the male characters in the story.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

 

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” (2014) by Jennifer Brozek

Visit Assam, India, where a British dilettante wakes up one morning covered in bruises and welts, with a dead man in her bed and o memory of what happened in the last 24 hours. Her only clue is a trashed invitation to the exclusive Black Ram Club.
—back cover, Jazz Age Cthulhu (2014)

Jennifer Brozek knew what the readers wanted, and determined to give it to them, good and hard. Mythos fiction as a self-defined genre may be something that Lovecraft and his contemporaries created in the 1920s and 30s, but generations of fans have read through everything they could get their hands on and still clamored for more. The form and tropes of the fiction have progressed, passing through pastiche into a rarified species of fiction—one with its own language of tropes, intimations, and old familiar horrors. Such is “Dreams of a Thousand Young.”

Brozek’s novelette reads like an adventure for the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, too pulpish for real horror but hitting its marks. Attention is paid to the accuracy of the setting, the characterization of the British Colonial atmosphere, marked with the unsubtle distinctions of class and ethnicity. There is action and excitement, a new cult and and an old favorite horror, a bloody-minded nun and a penchant for Elder Signs as prophylactic device that August Derleth would have approved of. And there is a beautiful woman who was at the center of a ritual and who may now be quietly gestating something inhuman.

As with “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins, Brozek’s achievement is one of execution and characterization. Lady Helen Keeling is the viewpoint character, and the story rises and falls on how believable and compelling her views are. Rather than the fainting Gothic heroine or the prim and virginal British lady, Keeling is…complicated. Not a slut, but far from innocent; genuinely a victim, but determined not to play the victim; born along by the course of events, but taking her own active role in things as well.

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” is reminiscent of “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer; not because of any inspiration Brozek took, but simply because both authors were working from similar sources. The cults and mythologies of Lovecraft and his contemporaries were often ambiguous, tenuous, sometimes contradicting. Cults didn’t always have names, robes and hoods were optional and often absent; sorcery, sacrifices, and summonings were undefined in capabilities and requirements. The roleplaying game was always much more concrete, defining spells and the names of critters—it is no surprise that the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath which appear in both stories are strongly inspired both in name and appearance by the critter of the same variety in the game.

It is very weird to consider that today some writers are drawing on, not the original fiction by Lovecraft and his contemporaries or even the second wave of fiction by the next generation of writers like Ramsey Campbell or Brian Lumley, but from reference materials derived from those previous works. When writers don’t go straight for Lovecraft and Derleth, but reach for The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia or S. Petersen’s Field Guide to Lovecraftian Horrors, the stories that result are no longer pastiche in any real sense; the stylistic aspects of the individual original authors is lost. The material has been through too many hands and minds, a lot of the odd details are smoothed out, and the result is strangely—consistent.

Which is what many readers want from their Mythos fiction.

So Jennifer Brozek gave it to them, with skill and craft.

“Dreams of a Thousand Young” was first published in Jazz Age Cthulhu (2014). 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.

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” (1996) by Nancy A. Collins

Lovers’ Lane was really an old logging road on the side of Goat Hill, which overlooked Misty Valley. On a clear night, you could look out and see the entire valley spread out, with the lights of the town reflected in the Miskatonic River, which wound through the center of the village like a dark ribbon.
—Nancy A. Collins, “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” in Tales Out of Dunwich 163

The Dunwich Horror took place in 1928. H. P. Lovecraft never lived to see the decades tick by, highways springing up, World War II, rock & roll, young men with greased-back hair and black leather jackets taking cheerleaders in bobby socks up to Lover’s Lane…

“The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is a projection of Lovecraft’s Mythos into those decades he never lived to see, and is pitch-perfect in how the characters react, their views and voices in terms of the era. The plot itself is straightforward, almost familiar in its beats. How many times have readers come across a Mythos-related pregnancy? “The Dunwich Horror” by H. P. Lovecraft, “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens“Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter“The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron—and so many others. Female characters have been impregnated by Mythos entities almost since there was a Mythos—before that even, if you count Arthur Machen’s “The Novel of the Black Seal”. Yet old familiar themes can still be potent, in the right hands.

The novelty may have worn off, but Nancy Collins handles the execution with characteristic skill. How would a 1950s community respond to such an event?

Principal Strickland says that having a girl in—well, in your condition, is bad for morale. Carol Anne—you’re the Homecoming Queen! What kind of standard are you folding up to the other girls? If you keep the baby, I’m afraid you won’t be allowed back into class come the new school year!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 178

The desire to save face—either through a “therapeutic abortion” or discreetly sending Carol Anne off to a home for unwed mothers where she can give birth and put the child up for adoption—is almost comic compared to the reality of the situation. Carol Anne’s own agency in the matter is strong (“I don’t care! I’m not giving up my baby!”) despite her mother’s pleadings (“Carol Anne—what will people think?“)…or is it?

It wants you to think I’m the father! That way it’s safe for it to be born!
—”The Thing from Lover’s Lane” 180

Most Mythos stories don’t discuss the ugly details of these sexual encounters with Mythos entities, much less their aftermath. Rape is not pleasant, and was not for Carol Anne; humans have had means for dealing with unwanted pregnancies and children for thousands of years, and in recent decades knowledge of and access to birth control and abortion have become more widespread. Collins, working in a contemporary setting, had to acknowledge that Carol Anne had options—and she did.

Narrative impetus in this case is that Shub-Niggurath’s thousand-and-first young must be borne. So Carol Anne’s agency had to be subverted, and her victimization in this story is one of the nastier cases in any Mythos story. All she wanted was to have a little fun at Lover’s Lane with her boyfriend, and because of that she was raped, knocked up, faced the social stigma of being an unwed teenage mother in ’50s America…and, ultimately, died giving birth. The story is almost a 1950s fable, to scare girls away from following in her footsteps. Collins goes into far greater detail about the horror Carol Anne suffers at each step, leaving only the erotic details off the page.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Sex and horror go together; titillation and terror are both states of excitement, and sex elicits a thrill to many readers. Pregnancy especially has its place in the horrors that women feel—and for many Mythos stories the result is almost routine: of course sex leads to pregnancy. Maybe the mother will die in childbirth, or maybe it’ll only be the spawn that the heroes have to deal with. The mother herself rarely gets much attention. Here, at least, Nancy Collins does not ignore or downplay the suffering of Carol Anne, nor does she seek to make it erotic. “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” is determined to retain the horror of the events, above all else…and it does it well.

Nancy Collins’ “The Thing from Lover’s Lane” was first published in It Came from the Drive-In (1996), and nominated for a Bram Stoker Award, but did not win. The story was republished in the author’s collection Avenue X and Other Dark Streets (2000), and Tales out of Dunwich (2005). It has also been released as an ebook: “The Thing from Lover’s Lane: A Mythos Tale” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos

“My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ

I’d always thought Alan was pretty much a fruitcake himself—remember, Milty, this is 1952—because he used to read all that crazy stuff, The Cult of Cthulhu, Dagon Calls, The Horror Men of Lengyeah, I remember that H. P. Lovecraft flick you got ten percent on for Hollywood and TV and reruns—but what did we know?
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 360

The trick of “My Boat” is that Joanna Russ is not telling the same story. The frame is a kind of confession, Hollywood pitch-patter, cynical and jaded and full of bad taste. The confession itself opens as a kind of bildungsroman, focused on the integration of a handful of black teenagers into a rich, all-white highschool, and one drama club kid tagging along. Then there’s the twist, with the title-drop, into straight fantasy; shades of magical realism, skirting the edges of the Dreamlandsbut the narrator isn’t ready. Scoot ahead twenty years, 1972, and it’s a story about regret, missed opportunities realized at lastand the frame comes back around around, past catching up to the present.

It’s a story about lost youth. Intimately, if not directly, it’s a story about H. P. Lovecraft.

H. P. Lovecraft’s novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath was never published during his lifetime. Lovecraft who was inspired by his dreams to write some of his most famous stories. Who took inspiration from Lord Dunsany’s “Idle Days on the Yann” and built up his own cycle of stories set in a mythical Dreamlands—”The Cats of Ulthar,” “Celephaïs,” “The White Ship,” etc.—which tied back around and into his “Arkham Cycle,” stories like “The Call of Cthulhu” and At the Mountains of Madness. Yet there is a sequel to “Idle Days on the Yann,” which is echoed in Lovecraft as well:

For I thought never again to see the tide of Yann, but when I gave up politics not long ago the wings of my fancy strengthened, though they had erstwhile drooped, and I had hopes of coming behind the East once more where Yann like a proud white war-horse goes through the Lands of Dream. Yet I had forgotten the way to those little cottages on the edge of the fields we know whose upper windows, though dim with antique cobwebs, look out on the fields we know not and are the starting-point of all adventure in all the Lands of Dream.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Shop in Go-By Street”

When Randolph Carter was thirty he lost the key of the gate of dreams. Prior to that time he had made up for the prosiness of life by nightly excursions to strange and ancient cities beyond space, and lovely, unbelievable garden lands across ethereal seas; but as middle age hardened upon him he felt these liberties slipping away little by little, until at last he was cut off altogether. No more could his galleys sail up the river Oukranos past the gilded spires of Thran, or his elephant caravans tramp through perfumed jungles in Kled, where forgotten palaces with veined ivory columns sleep lovely and unbroken under the moon.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Silver Key”

“My Boat” is a sequel to the idea of those stories, Lovecraft and Dunsany. Like Russ’ earlier story “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) it is also self-referential. Lovecraft lived, wrote some fiction, and died. The characters are familiar with his works, at least in passing. The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is just a weird novel, to a kid in 1952. A fantasy. A dream that teenagers grow out of… and that grown people might try to reclaim, once they’re older and wise enough to realize what they’d missed.

I think Cissie knew what I expected her mamma to be and what a damned fool I was, even considering your run-of-the-mill, seventeen-year-old white liberal racist, and that’s why she didn’t take me along.
Joanna Russ, “My Boat” in Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990) 369

Russ was a woman and a feminist; she was a science fiction fan and writer in a period when the majority of the writers, audience, and editors were white menand for good measure, most of the protagonists too; their love-interests tended to blonde, whether Terran or Martian. She was a perceptive enough critic to know that, and to be able to use it. The race and gender of her small cast of characters says a lot about them, with no apologies.

Jim, the narrator, is a cutting depiction of a young white man who isn’t aware enough of his own prejudices to know that stereotypes aren’t true; Cecilia “Cessie” Jackson doesn’t have that luxury. We don’t get to see Jim grow up, exactly, but hearing his 37-year-old self talk about his 17-year-old self, we see the older Jim is wise enough to be honest and cynical about how wrong he was then. And we get to see a young black woman, mentally scarred by the traumatic murder of her father, not needing any white man to help or heal her.

This is a story that would have been difficult to write before the death of August Derleth in 1970. It’s not just that it references the integration of schools, segregation being officially outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, or Malcolm X who was assassinated in 1965. It’s a Mythos story that lives in the shadow of the Civil Rights movement, but which looks back at an earlier decade with jaded eyes, looking for what it missed the first time around.

In a Lovecraftian sense, Cessie Jackson is a very different kind of dreamer. Randolph Carter lost the key to the Dreamlands; Dunsany’s unnamed narrator could no longer sail on the River Yann. They both became too mired in mundane life and realitybut not her. Jim is the Lovecraftian protagonist, and Cessie Jackson initiates him into a world he had not even guessed at…and then she makes the transition that Jim is afraid to make. That’s the key and the catalyst to the plot, what drives the older Jim in the final act. How vapid and empty is the agent’s pitch for the “beautiful blonde girl Martian” compared to the strange reality that was Cessie Jackson, the plain-looking black girl with natural hair?

It took fourteen years for “My Boat” to find its way into a Mythos anthology, the revised edition of Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1990). That is perhaps less surprising when you look at the kinds of Mythos anthologies being publishedup until Derleth’s death, Arkham House had an effective monopoly, interspersing Lovecraft stories with contemporary works, pastiches, posthumous collaborations, culminating in the original Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969). “My Boat” is an odd fit if filed next to 1930s pulp reprints or pastiches of the same; forty years on Joanna Russ’ still feels relevant and timely today.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

Galileo and Derleth and Chen sought forbidden knowledge, too. That got us this far.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” in Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror 238

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” differs from its sister-stories “Boojum” and “Mongoose” in several important ways. All three stories take place in the same space opera setting, and they are interconnected by the elements of Bear & Monette’s mythos—boojums, cheshires, toves, bandersnatch, Arkhamers—but their narratives are largely independent of one another. The setting is the same, but not the cast of characters, or the plot, or the approach.

“Boojum” is essentially a sea story, of the kind that went out of style as wooden, wind-powered clipper ships disappeared at the end of the 19th century to steam and coal, a pirate tale in an exotic setting. “Mongoose” is inspired by Kipling’s “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” the literary DNA recombinated into something a little stranger, but it is still very much a set-piece story of a distant outpost under threat. “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is a story of a plague ship—and a kind of inversion of H. P. Lovecraft’s story “Herbert West—Reanimator,”

Dr. Cynthia Feuerwerker is the complement to Dr. Herbert West: a medical doctor who dabbled in forbidden research and paid the price for it. Where West is callous in his pursuit of knowledge, Feuerwerker is first and foremost an attentive physician. Her intellectual intelligence is balanced by emotional intelligence, her keen scientific curiosity reined in by a moral imperative. Personal concerns outweighed by certainty of ethical responsibilities, echoed by the repeated phrase “that’s how you get war crimes.”

Sometimes, the right thing to do is disobey orders.

So instead of a story about a nameless protagonist that aids and abets a reanimator, Bear & Monette wrote a story about a doctor calling out the reanimator and tell them why they were wrong.

Haven’t you ever heard of what happened to the Lavinia Whateley?
—”The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” 255

In deliberately borrowing from one of Lovecraft’s stories to essentially have a zombie-story set on a dead ship in space during a nominal salvage run, Bear & Monette also take the opportunity to peel back the onionskin on their setting a little more. Readers learn about the Arkhamers, with their arcane academic society and naming conventions, a further peek at one of the more discriminated groups in the boojumverse. They also run into names not taken from Cthulhu Mythos fiction, but from the real-life people that wrote and published those stories: Wandrei, Derleth, and Caitlín R. Kiernan.

This brand of meta-awareness, of mixing fictional creation and real-world persons in the same name-dropping fashion, is old hat in the Mythos. Lovecraft included references to Arthur Machen and Clark Ashton Smith in his stories; August Derleth included references to Lovecraft and his stories alongside the Necronomicon and other Mythos tomes. The boundary between fact and fiction was blurred a little, and that’s part of the point of doing these self-referential name drops—to push the hoax a little in the direction that maybe Lovecraft & co. were really onto something, that maybe what they wrote about does exist—a premise for works as different as Robert Bloch’s novel Strange Eons (1978) and Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows graphic novel Providence (2015-2017).

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” is doing something a little different, though. The question asked in “Boojum” is: what does Lavinia Whateley mean in the context of this setting, that they would name a ship after her? In “Mongoose,” why are so many of the stations of similar names drawn from the Cthulhu Mythos? By ranking Derleth next to Galileo, the suggestion is that this is the future of a setting where some aspect of the Mythos was real, and was revealed by Lovecraft’s posthumous publishers. It is an evolution of Richard Lupoff’s approach in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone”, with a greater eye to the process of discovery and acclimatization.

The boojumverse is not Cthulhupunk, it is the step beyond that. A setting where the alien horrors of the Mythos are, if not exactly normalized, something humanity has adapted itself to. The success of Bear & Monette is not just in writing three great stories, but in looking a little further than other writers into what the exposure of the Mythos might mean if it did not immediately destroy humanity. In Moore’s script for Providence, he suggests that the Lovecraftian scholars might become Lovecraftian scientists—and the boojumverse is a setting where that might well have happened.

We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Maybe that’s the worst part of human nature. Nothing ever stops us. Not for long.
—”The Case of the Charles Dexter Ward” 272

Cynthia Feuerwerker has voyaged farther than Lovecraft ever foresaw, when he wrote of Herbert West’s nominally laudable scientific inquiry and desire to achieve the medical goal of defeating death perverted and degenerated by “a soul calloused and seared.” West was willing to kill for his researches; Feuerwerker was not. Bear & Monette’s moral, if there is one, is less than comforting: someone will try again. This was not the first reanimator, nor will it be the last. Human curiosity often outstrips its ability to foresee the implications and ramifications of what it does and what it creates.

“The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” was first published as an audiobook on the Drabblecast (2012). It was reprinted in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Thirtieth Annual Collection and The Mammoth Book of Best New SF 26 (both 2013), New Cthulhu 2: More Recent Weird (2015), Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016), and Chiral Mad 4: An Anthology of Collaborations (2018).

It is the third of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette’s collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and “Mongoose”.


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

 

“Mongoose” (2009) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

BEAR SAYS: My introduction to Lovecraft came, strangely enough, through the non-Mythos story “Cool Air,” which remains my favorite. I feel moved to explore his work in part because it’s such an uncomfortable blend of the unsettling and the problematic. I feel moved to question the boundaries of Lovecraft’s (often uncomfortably racist and misogynist) biological determinism, and find that his own metaphors of alienation and internalized inhumanity make an excellent tool for doing so.

MONETTE SAYS: I found Lovecraft in graduate school and feel instantly in love, not only with his darkly elaborate cosmology, hi ghouls and shoggoths and Elder Gods, but also with his own love affair with the English language. And somehow, for Lovecraft and for me, the two things to together: the words and the monsters, the monsters and the words.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, Lovecraft Unbound 372-373

Deeper down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, the readers are drawn back to the setting of  “Boojum.” In Bear & Monette’s second collaboration, both of their authorial voices blend and find expression, and the setting is fleshed out. Now in addition to boojums, gillies, and Mi-GO we have cheshires, toves, raths, bandersnatch—and Christians, Arkhamers, and political officers. The human monsters may not be quite as scary as the aliens phasing in from some other dimension, but that’s only because the reader is more likely to be familiar with them.

“Words and monsters”—”boojum” was the name of a nonsense creature from Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (An Agony in 8 Fits) (1876); “toves,” “raths,” and “bandersnatch” are taken from Jabberwocky (1871); “cheshire” from the Cheshire Cat in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865).  The first four are nonsense words—the mind has no reference for what they look like, because they are not based on anything in human experience, so the reader is forced to use their own imagination—a neat trick which works better in a Lovecraftian context than simply making the alien entities unnameable and indescribable.

“Cheshire” however has a more specific context: the cat that slowly disappears, except for their smile, fading in and out of existence. In the lived-in, blue collar setting of “Boojum,” the cheshires and their handlers have to work for a living—and that’s where the story starts, on Kadath Station, as Israel Irizarry and Mongoose come to deal with an infestation of toves…and all the complications to what is otherwise a relatively straightforward pest removal story set in a space station.

The complications to the plot demand context, some of which we’re given, some of which is left hinted at but unsaid; meat for the reader’s imagination and future developments. Nothing from “Boojum” is discarded, but some of it is given more shape: multiple space stations with familiar names (Providence, Kadath, Leng, Dunwich, Arkham), some sort of Earth-Moon alliance that has commissar-esque political officers running in parallel authority with the stationmaster apparatchiks and bureaucrats. Boojum movements causing rents in space where creatures from an alien food chain can slip through, proliferate, and the tears widen, letting bigger things in…there’s a rationale to the indescribable things that phase in and out of this dimension with the nonsense names. A biological determinism in the food chain established.

Human prejudice has its place too, although the details are scant. The Christians are weird, heavily modified, barely glimpsed, but obviously an unfamiliar and discriminated-against minority; the same applies to the Gillies and the Arkhamers. This is not the Star Trek future of clean ships and racial harmony; there are biases and politics, hints of extremist cults and unsettling human-alien interaction. Somehow, that makes it more believable. Imperfect futures are dynamic, creative; there are places to go…and oh, the places Mongoose and Irizarry will go in this story, on their own quest in Kadath, where the reality grows thin and the toves and raths swarm…

As with “Boojum,” the focus of “Mongoose” is on the relationship between a human and an alien. The relationship alienates the human partner from other humans, and yet at the same time is what makes them unique and special. It is a literal case of alienation by dint of an intimate relationship with an extraterrestrial—and a positive, respectful one. Irizarry is conscientious of his partner’s health and well-being, worried for her safety, her likes and dislikes; they communicate frequently. It is the kind of ultra-personal interaction which is the antithesis of many Lovecraftian stories. The alien never stops being “alien,” but humans—at least some of them—learn to adapt and interact with them. But there is, as the culminating revelation of the story shows, always more to learn.

The Mythos takes a stronger place on stage in “Mongoose” compared to “Boojum,” although casual readers won’t miss much if they haven’t read Frank Belknap Long’s “The Hounds of Tindalos” (1929). Bear & Monette re-imagine and re-invent Mythos concepts, rather than simply regurgitate old familiar names. They work actively to build on the setting hinted at in the first story, but the two remain standalone, complementary: you don’t need to have read “Boojum,” but they don’t explain boojums in “Mongoose.” This is an aggregate mythology, and the sum is greater than the parts—but the readers can enjoy the parts independently. Which is good, because they haven’t been collected yet.

“Mongoose” first appeared in Lovecraft Unbound (2009), and was subsequently reprinted in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume Four, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 23rd Annual Collection, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy: 2010 (all 2010), New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird (2011), Clarkesworld Magazine #81 (Jun 2013), and In Space No One can Hear You Scream (2013). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2010. It is the second of Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborations, preceded by “Boojum” and followed by “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“Boojum” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette

The Lavinia Whateley was a Boojum, a deep-space swimmer, but her kind had evolved in the high tempestuous envelopes of gas giants, and their offspring still spent their infancies there, in cloud-nurseries over eternal storms.
—Elizabeth Bear & Sarah Monette, “Boojum” in The Book of Cthulhu II 237

Sometimes, “Cthulhu Mythos” seems like an inadequate label for a story. “Boojum” is one of those. Bear & Monette’s tale is space opera for the 21st century, tightly written and gloriously imaginative. The Mythos elements themselves are both essential and yet subdued: the spice of the story, but not the meat of it. This isn’t a pastiche of Lovecraft among the stars. It’s a pirate story, in some distant future. Space pirates in a living ship, cracking open freighters; dealing stolen cargo with the Mi-Go.

For literary ancestry, “Boojum” has two notable forebears: “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939) by H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling, which is essentially Lovecraft’s version of a 1930s interplanetary tale, and Richard Lupoff’s “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977), which brought Lovecraft’s Mythos to the New Wave of science fiction. The better part of four decades between when those two stories were published—and in that time a space race was ran and won and lost. Another three decades between “Ghooric Zone” and “Boojum”—and what changed?

Attitude, certainly. Bear & Monette’s future is dirty, cramped, blue-collar, more Alien than Star Trek. A Lovecraftian future that feels lived in; realistic but not exactly bleak. There are stark choices and bad options when the only thing between you and hard vacuum is the skin of a giant extraterrestrial entity that you live inside like a space ship, when you live under constant threat that the captain might notice and make an example out of you. When you have to watch your oxygen levels, and it’s rational to choose between living as a brain in a canister or getting eaten by a diamond-toothed monster.

Why call the ship the Lavinia Whateley? In part, this is a signal to the readers of what this story is going to be. We never get a sense of why that name was applied within the context of the setting, except that the other ships like the Marie Curie and the Josephine Baker were also great women. The protagonist Black Alice Bradley swears by “Jesus and the cold fishy gods”; she lived in a world where Gillies from Providence Station are recognizable, where sunstones are mined on Venus, and the Fungi from Yuggoth move through space like the boojum themselves. This is a future which acknowledges Lovecraft, that riffs off his creations, but approaches the material from a contemporary point of view. Not too behooven to the man from Providence.

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientist, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. […] No stock romance is wanted.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” in Collected Essays 2.180

Lovecraft wrote his assertions against romance during the heyday of the scientific romance, when John Carter would travel to Mars and seduce the alien princess Dejah Thoris, decades before Captain Kirk would leave a trail of broken hearts across the galaxy. While certain elements of his advice have aged well, others are less applicable.

In “Boojum,” Black Alice Bradley loves the Lavinia Whateley. Not sexually, though there is a certain intimacy throughout the story: Black Alice and the rest of the crew lives within the Boojum. To Black Alice, the “ship” is Vinnie, and though Black Alice is one of the lowest members of the crew, a self-taught engineer far down in the hierarchy, her sense of wonder and awe at being in the stars is focused on a single individual, a single relationship—we get no sense that Black Alice has any other real friends or lovers among the crew. In a real sense, Vinnie is all Black Alice cares about—and the revelation of the story, which Lovecraft might have at least begrudgingly recognized as something other than a “stock romance,” is that as a living being Vinnie cares about Black Alice.

“Boojum” first appeared in Fast Ships, Black Sails (2008), and was subsequently reprinted in Year’s Best SF 14, The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection, The Mammoth Book of Best New Science Fiction: 22nd Annual Collection (all 2009), The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy, 2009 Edition (2010), Lightspeed (Sep 2012), The Book of Cthulhu II (2012), Space Opera (2014), and The Mammoth Book of SF Stories by Women (2014). It was adapted to audiobook by the Drabblecast in 2011. Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette have collaborated on two follow-ups, “Mongoose” (2009) and “The Wreck of the Charles Dexter Ward” (2012).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“A Creak in the Floor” (2018) by Victoria Dalpe

Don’t you know there was a mill on Copp’s Hill in 1632, and that half the present streets were laid out by 1650? I can shew you houses that have stood two centuries and a half and more; houses that have witnessed what would make a modern house crumble into powder.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Pickman’s Model”

A story doesn’t have to reference Richard Upton Pickman by name to invoke “Pickman’s Model.” When you boil Lovecraft’s story down to its essence, the soul of it’s core message is simple and perfect: there are monsters in the earth, and they eat the dead. So that is what Victoria Dalpe takes a her premise. No Necronomicon, no blasphemous artwork—just a bunch of art school kids renting a space in an old mill in Boston that’s been converted into illegal housing.

The art school kids tell each other stories, urban legend-building in real time, Dalpe working from her Lovecraftian substrate and layering on all the hints and suggestions. The girl who died in the elevator. The guy that got mugged. Where’s Pete? If this was drawn out to novella length or adapted to film, we might get the full Lovecraftian investigation, the secret history unveiled one onion skin at a time. The inexplicable rendered down, explained, pre-digested for the audience.

“A Creak In The Floor” is a short story. It doesn’t have time for that. Everyone knows what it’s about, or they should. Dalpe ends the story by going for the jugular. And she didn’t need a single reference to Pickman to do it, barely uses the g-word. Compared to a lot of Lovecraftian pastiche, it’s refreshing to see someone that can invoke the Mythos without calling the old names. It is reminiscent of “Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin in that way, though Dalpe’s tale hews a little closer to the Lovecraft canon.

If the things-beneath-the-mill are the crux of the story, Where is Pete? is the key to the plot. It is what drives the protagonist Charlie Chan deeper into the darkness. Pete is the reason Charlie is there. Pete is the boy Charlie is in love with. The human connection draws Charlie inexorably in after his friend, his hinted-at one-time lover. The missing Pete’s interpersonal connections with his flatmates is woven in and around the urban legends that Dalpe builds, much as Pickman himself has been built up from Lovecraft’s ghoulish artist, drawing bits of legend to his own personal Mythos as writers weave their stories around him—like “Pickman’s Other Model (1929)” (2008) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, or “Pickman’s Modem” (1992) by Lawrence Evans-Watt.

Victoria Dalpe turns the page before we see what crimson end is in store for Charlie, and that is appropriate. While his story could have gone on, the story that Dalpe was telling really ends with the final revelation. In a twist of irony that only Lovecraft readers will get, it once again involves a photograph from life…

“A Creek In The Floor” was published in Pickman’s Gallery (2018). Victoria Dalpe’s other Lovecraftian contribution includes “Mater Annelinda” in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014).


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)

“The Sisters Derleth” (2017) by Michelle D. Sonnier

“Chin up and all that,” she muttered to herself. “How is this any worse than marrying a man older than my father and bearing him children?”
—Michelle D. Sonnier, “The Sisters Derleth” in EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness 58

Growing up is about facing adult fears. This applies to Mythos fiction as much as in human life: the talk of elder gods and strange creatures older than humanity have the timeless quality of a good fable, suitable for all ages. Not quite the same as the foreign markets tanking your father’s investments and now being a young woman stuck in a small town in Massachusetts, unable to make the rent, and the only thing to possibly barter a better life with being what’s between your legs.

Which is more literal than Edith Athney expects when she meets the Sisters Derleth.

The delayed adolescence of Edith is mimicked in the style of narration as well as the events of the story. The flowery, quasi-Brontë prose at the beginning gives way swiftly to a more natural, faster-paced flow of dialogue, back and forth. Trapped between forces she can barely comprehend, the protagonist of Sonnier’s tale nevertheless makes the heroically pragmatic choice—and if she bargains away her innocence, at least she strikes her own bargain on terms she sets, rather than being forced into an arranged marriage. The final sign of her coming-of-age is a very literal and bloody deflowering, though not the one she might have hoped for.

The issue of financial anxiety tied to marriageability is absent from the bulk of Mythos fiction. It is a very human, mundane, adult fear which relies on social conventions and expectations, and it is a rare writer that makes such fears the opening or centerpiece of a Mythos story. “In His Daughter’s Darkling Womb” (1997) by Tina L. Jens broaches the issue of reproductive horror, “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales focuses on how women feel when reduced to wombs for barter, “Prey of the Goat” (1994) by Margaret L. Carter touches on marriage fertility anxieties, but Sonnier focuses on the fear of the future: of being an old maid, of the consequences of not marrying well. Marrying for love isn’t even on the table: this is a horror story, and Edith loses such romantic ideas fairly early.

Why Derleth? The eponymous sisters of the story have no direct connection to Lovecraft’s friend and hagiographer, August Derleth; nor does it appear to be a reference to the Comte d’Erlette, the author of Cultes des Goules. It just is, a name to conjure by, an empty association. As much a lure to draw the reader in as the Sisters’ invitation to Edith brought them into their garden…and if the readers are left wondering where exactly the Sisters fit in to the grand scheme of the Mythos, that is not a fault. In Mythos fiction especially, less is sometimes more, and a bit of mystery is preferable to absolute certainty.

Much of the Mythos elements and tropes at play in the story verge on trite: Sonnier isn’t seeking to expand the Mythos substantially or score points with the more hardcore fan scholars by making excessive tie-ins to other works. If “The Sisters Derleth” plays fast and loose, inspired more by the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game and its sanity-draining eldritch tomes than Lovecraft and his contemporaries’ original fiction, it is because it can do so—and is little different in that regard than “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer.

“The Sisters Derleth” was published in EOM: Equal Opportunity Madness A Mythos Anthology (2017). It is her first Lovecraftian work.

 


Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014)