The Mayans thought the cenotes were portals to the realm of the dead, Xibalba, but his family called it by another name, Y’ha-nthlei, and the cenote was Yliah’he. It had no meaning in Mayan, this was an older language, the elders had told him. A language from before the Conquest, before the great pyramids rose upon the limestone bedrock of Yucatán. Much of the knowledge had been lost through the years, but some true names and words remained. Yliah’he.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, “Legacy of Salt” in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu324
The Mythos, from its small hard core of writings by Lovecraft and his contemporaries, has been spun out by many writers in many ways. That is the great gift of it: being able to play with the ideas, to have readers trace the shape of old stories and old ideas, newly embodied: refreshed, reincarnated, yet recognizable.
Scene: Yucatán, the 1960s. An old family, an old house; echoes of Edgar Allan Poe, the shadows a little darker in the harsh tropical sunlight. The family name is Marin rather than Marsh; there is no Devil’s Reef, but there is the cenote Yliah’he.
A Mexican Innsmouth, a new corner of Lovecraft country.
The story itself is a romance, almost a telenovela; we know this story even if we haven’t read it before. Will they/won’t they? There are all the usual and unusual obstructions: a fiance back in Mexico City, the call of the modern world, the titillating hint of incest. Yet Silvia Moreno-Garcia carries us through admirably. She knows these waters, the details that make the setting pop, the buttons to push to keep the reader wondering, until the very end, which way it will go.
Silvia Moreno-Garcia wrote “Legacy of Salt” around the time she was reading a lot of philosophy of biology materials and also a Darwin biography as part of her Master’s degree studies. “Some of the scientific issues I was exploring collided with this story. I have always found ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ to be fascinating since it seems to dip its toes into the notion of repulsion/attraction. Is it such a bad thing to swim eternally in underwater palaces? I kind of like the idea. The Yucatán peninsula is definitely nothing like New England but the numerous markers for archaeological sites somewhat reminded me of the nation of the past creeping upon the present, which occurs in some of Lovecraft’s fiction.”
—The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu312
Except in the sense that the Marins are survivors; remnants of some family line that dates back before the Conquest of Mexico. There are hints throughout the story, references to the Mayan rain-god Chaac, in the shape of a frog, but nothing specific. Hints, remnants, just enough to whet the imagination. The lack of knowledge, loss of knowledge, is the great sub-theme of this story. The biological and material “legacy of salt” is undeniable, but there is a loss of cultural knowledge keenly felt…and that too is a legacy of the Conquest.
“Legacy of Salt” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu(2016), and has not yet been reprinted. Silvia Moreno-Garcia has been an editor, writer, and translator. Her Lovecraftian fiction includes “Flash Frame” (2010), “In the House of the Hummingbirds” (2012), “The Sea, Like Broken Glass” (2014), and “In the Details” (2015), and her latest novel is Mexican Gothic(2020).
“Their religion? You mean, they have one of their own?”
“The Reformed Order of Dagon. It’s a branch, or a schism of a church that was founded in Massachusetts about a hundred and fifty years ago. As I understand it, the main body of the church was stamped out by some pretty high-handed federal action back in the nineteen-twenties. But they never got around to bothering the Squampottis bunch, either because they’re so isolated, or because cooler heads prevailed in Washington. The thing in Massachusetts was remarkably well hushed-up. All the relevant government records have been destroyed.”
—Brian McNaughton, Tide of Desire (1983)
The very first erotic novel to deal with the legacy of Innsmouth came from the typewriter of Brian McNaughton. Active as a fan during his teenage years in the 1950s, McNaughton was briefly a journalist before turning his hand to erotic novels, starting with In Flagrant Delight (1971). His “break” came in the late 70s when he began producing erotic horror novels, starting with Satan’s Love Child (1977)—the publisher’s title, not his—which included elements of or references to the Cthulhu Mythos. It was successful enough to merit several other books, and McNaughton transitioned back over into doing mainstream horror in Weirdbook and other publications, and won the World Fantasy Award for Throne of Bones (1997).
Erotic horror wasn’t exactly new, as Grady Hendrix notes in Paperbacks from Hell: The Twisted History of ’70s and ’80s Horror Fiction, sex has long been a selling point and those two decades saw a boom in erotic horror and horror erotica. Still, this was a decade before Ramsey Campbell’s Scared Stiff: Tales of Sex and Death (1987) or the anthology Hot Blood (1989), and erotic horror fiction of the period tended to work off existing properties like Universal Monsters or classic horror novels—The Adult Version of Dracula (1970) and The Adult Version of Frankenstein (1970) being exemplary of the latter trend. By comparison, Lovecraft was largely a virgin field for erotic horror, or at least not entirely played out.
Beginning in the early 1980s, McNaughton wrote a series of erotic novels for Tigress Books. These were written under the pseudonym “Sheena Clayton,” and the line itself may have been aimed more at a female audience than typical adult novels of the period, a more hot-blooded and explicit counterpart to mainstream romance novels. The books tend to feature female protagonists and writers with female names, and the relatively sedate photo covers give the impression. On the name, McNaughton once wrote:
Sheena Clayton was the illegitimate daughter of Sheena, Queen of the Jungle, and
John Clayton, Lord Greystroke. I channeled her in several novels, of which TIDE OF
DESIRE may have been the best. (Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos202)
These novels were Love and Desire (1982), The Aura of Seduction (1982), Tide of Desire
(1982/3), Danielle Book Two (1983), There Lies Love (1983), and Perfect Love (1983). All of these to greater or lesser extant contain references to the Mythos. For example, Edward Pickman Derby appears briefly as a member of a “Rats in the Walls”-esque Magna Mater cult in Love and Desire; Ramsey Campbell’s Lovecraftian fictional grimoire Astral Rape from his novel The Parasite (1980) is prominent in Danielle Book Two; and the cult in Perfect Love was founded by a Rev. H. P. Whateley from Arkham, Massachusetts.
Inside the door, Cthulhu ran up with a hearty meow, and he seemed just as glad to see Melisande as herself. The girl was quite indifferent to him, however, perhaps even a bit impatient with his rubbing against her ankles.
“Scat!” Antonia cried, moving him along with a nudge of her toe. “Cthulhu doesn’t normally take to strangers.”
“Who?” The girl seemed startled, even shocked.
“Cthulhu. That’s the cat’s name.”
—Brian McNaughton, Tide of Desire (1983)
The style of the novel partakes strongly of the Derlethian combination that Lovecraft’s fictional works exist in the world of Tide of Desire, and that the stories chronicle at least partially real events, so that the Mythos definitely exists. A good point of comparison might be Robert Bloch’s novel Strange Eons(1979). More interesting for fans of McNaughton’s later Mythos fiction is that several of the concepts for the Deep One culture are carried over between the novel and his story “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999). For example, the idea of a Deep One hybrid transitioning from land to water is called “Passing Over”:
“Dagon flay me alive! Ye be right! What an old ninny I be! Our Caleb’s daughter, she passed over a good ten-fifteen years ago. I ain’t seed her lately, but she be down there, don’t you worry. You look like her; that got me all confused. You look like her before she passed over, I mean. I never seed her before she passed over, of course, but I got her picture as a girl someplace. Our Caleb sent pictures of him and his mainland wife and all their kids to prove that the kids didn’t have the look, no more’n he did. But that girl sure did, all right. Poor Caleb. He was right about hisself, he never passed over, but he never told his daughter a word about the Blessing of the Deep Ones. So there she lied, passing over in the middle of nowhere, miles from the sea, and not knowing what the hell were happening to her.”
Mrs. Nicker mumbled to herself as she debated the whereabouts of the photograph she’d mentioned. Then she said to Antonia: “But by pure luck-or more likely it were the hand of Dagon stretching out to help her-there were this colored man from New Orleans who knew somewhat about the doings of the Deep Ones, and he told her she had better get herself to the sea, fast. She paid him to help her, and he took her to… where? To Charleston, South Carolina, that’s right! So she got there just in time to pass over. Then she come to Squampottis and told us all about it. It were the most exciting thing happened on this here island since the visitation of Shug-N’gai, just after the federals smote all them blasphemers and heretics at Innsmouth. That were in nineteen-and-twenty-eight, I do believe. Who says my memory ain’t perfect, hey? Don’t you try to tell me about our Caleb, boy. You wasn’t even borned then.”
—Brian McNaughton, Tide of Desire (1983)
The gist of the novel is that the protagonist, Antonia Shiel, is herself a descendant of the Deep Ones whose body is preparing to “cross over,” encountering a splinter sect of the Esoteric Order of Dagon on Squampottis Island—and realizing too late that she herself has the “Squampottis look.” the changes in herself adding a touch of body horror to the novel as her hair falls out and her feet swell…all of which are undone by the ending.
“Your hair seems to be thicker all of a sudden,” he noted admiringly. “That lovely pubic patch is just like a beautiful young woman’s, and not bare like a child’s. And the hair on your scalp looks thicker already.” (ibid)
The novel comes to an abrupt, jarringly disconcerting “happy ending” very atypical for McNaughton’s novels, as the novel was bowdlerized badly by the editors. McNaughton found the original ending and was revising Tide of Desire for eventual publication at Wildside Press, under the title Riptide. However, McNaughton’s untimely death in 2004 appears to have ended any plans to republish the novel. We can only speculate what the original ending would have been, but given that the story as a whole is a kind of contemporary, sexually explicit update to “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” it would have been both appropriate and in keeping with the tone of the novel if Antonia had “passed over” and joined the Deep Ones.
It would be wrong to say that Tide of Desire, or any of the Sheena Clayton novels, were influential. Pornography is ephemeral literature, and the novels didn’t make much of a splash in Lovecraftian circles when they came out. Which is unfortunate because, as Matthew Carpenter notes in his own review and synopsis, this is actually a very competent Mythos novel, and presaged some of the ideas developed independently by later writers. Sonya Taaffe in “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) wrote about some hybrids that don’t make the transition, and McNaughton wrote:
“It’s me that’ll die, it’s me that’ll be dumped into the ground like dead meat.” She began to sob bitterly, clawing at the arms of the chair with abnormally large hands. “Oh, you should see Rev. Preserved. He’s like an angel! Just last month I seed him in all his glory at Marsh Cove, taking no less than a dozen of our maidens, and our Melly one of them. Whether she be carrying his child or not, I don’t know, it be too soon to tell. When Rev. Pre served told me to have faith, I nearly believed it. He were like a god walking on earth. He said I’d pass over yet, but I don’t believe him now. Dead meat in the churchyard, that’s where I be bound.” (ibid.)
Which makes sense, because Brian McNaughton was not writing an erotic story dealing primarily with sexual encounters with Deep Ones, a horror story not afraid to go into details like mature sexual relationships, body image issues over breast size and pubic hair, etc. Vulgar terms for genitalia are completely absent. One of the more explicit passages in the book is almost sedate by contemporary standards:
She’d had only two hours of fitful sleep, sleep plagued by distorted versions of her conversations with the Boggs boy and Rev. Marsh and Mrs. Nicker; by dreams in which she gazed on a hostile world through a black veil, where she lay wheezing in a dark bedroom in Hamlen, where a long-dead minister pinned her against the Joyful Pillar in the town square with ravaging thrusts of his phallus while Melisande Seale looked on with demonic glee. (ibid.)
More of a dry (wet?) run for the paranormal romance novel genre, in many respects.
Whatever the initial print run was, Tide of Desire did not become an instant collector’s item. Very few copies of any of the Sheena Clayton novels appear to survive, with Tide of Desire being noted as especially rare…at last in the English version.
By a quirk of fate, Tide of Desire actually got a Japanese translation and publication in 1984. 謎に包まれた孤島の愛 was one of a number of erotic novels translated into Japanese for mail order. Although out-of-print, copies may still be available today on the second-hand market.
For those who do desperately desire to read this novel, while the paperback is long out of print, ebook editions (really text files, but beggars cannot be choosers) of the Sheena Clayton novels are available from Triple X Books.
In the early 90’s I got into the Cthulhu Mythos, from the works of R.E. Howard and the H.P. Lovecraft. I’d been a role player for years playing Dungeons and Dragons, Star Frontiers and soon learned about the game Call of Cthulhu. […]
I started running Call of Cthulhu games at conventions… I started writing my own games… I started writing for Chaosium, the publisher of the Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game…
Slowly the Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game became a bigger and bigger part of my life. I wrote more, became published more often, and even branched off into cosmic horror fiction. Running scenarios at conventions soon became holding panels and seminars. Writing my own scenarios became editing the scenarios of others. Being published became publishing the works of others while working with Miskatonic River Press. Then that changed to being in charge of a small publishing house producing supplements for the Call of Cthulhu Role Playing Game.
The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game is undoubtedly one of the most critical vectors of infection for disseminating Lovecraft and the Mythos into the popular consciousness. Certainly, Weird Tales and Arkham House did their parts, popular paperback editions from Ballantine and Del Rey assured a wider audience, Hollywood films like The Dunwich Horror (1969) and Re-Animator (1985) spread the word. Yet after the death of August Derleth, it was Chaosium that launched its Call of Cthulhu Fiction line, reprinting both long-out-of-print classics and introducing new authors into the field. The roleplaying game has an international scope and appeal, and has attracted talented artists and writers.
Oscar Rios had been writing for Call of Cthulhu for six years when “The Nature of Faith” was published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults: Ten Tales of Dark & Secretive Orders(2010). The roleplaying game roots show, but only if you’re already familiar with the material. The Order of the Silver Twilight, mentioned in passing, is from the Shadows of Yog-Sothothcampaign. This isn’t a gaming scenario re-cast as a novella, just an original work of fiction from someone steeped in the setting and its lore.
In a real way, the story is a love-letter to Dunwich, both as Lovecraft first described it and as it developed with the additions of other authors. It should be considered in the context (if not actually the continuity) of “The Devil’s Hop Yard” (1978) by Richard Lupoff & “The Cry in the Darkness” (2011) by Richard Baron, although unlike those stories it makes no mention of the Whateleys at all. The character of Gertrude “Gerdy” Pope, in particular, whose near-albino appearance is so evocative of Lavinia Whateley and Hester Sawyer, explained here as a “type” that shows up in Dunwich on occasion.
If there’s a flaw in the story, it might be a penchant for organization and exposition. When Rios writes:
Gerdy’s understanding of the Believers history was scant, but she knew they were a secretive group dedicated to worshiping nature, studying various forms of magic, and living in harmony with the world around them. Exactly the type of organization that appealed to her sensibilities.
The first Believers had apparently come to Dunwich from Salem, fleeing the witch hysteria that swept through that coastal community. It was said they were led here by dreams, unconscious calls beckoning them to these hills. For hundreds of years the Believers have lived in Dunwich, elarning much about the landscape’s unqiue and still-mysterious history. Many knew they were not the first people called here, and some suspected they would not be the last. Gerdy had seen enough of their inner workings to know that Believers varied in the nature of their gifts, abilities, and worship, but one rule was universal within their cult: secrecy. —Cthulhu’s Dark Cults 136
It’s almost a write-up from a setting-book, and certainly more in line with New Age-y, Wicca-oriented, post-WWII fiction than the rather more sinister and nameless cultic activities of Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror” or August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold (1945).
Which is not to say that the Believers don’t have their darker aspects, nor that there aren’t more mysteries left unspoken than laid out plain. It’s notable that the plot is mainly focused on the women of the town—Gerdy, Mother & Marie Bishop, Virginia Adams, Ne’seal, Celestia. The story wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test, but by Mythos standards it has much more female representation than typical. But then, the gist of the story boils down to gender politics, with the intrusive, logical male outsider invading the peaceful, intuitive, female-dominated Dunwich. And hinted at being part of a cycle of such things.
A bit of an inversion from “The Dunwich Horror,” where Lavinia Whateley is used, sidelined, and ultimately disappeared; the female playing her role and then ushered quickly off-stage. Yet not exactly progressive either; there are still stereotypes at play here, both male and female. It is difficult to break out of those ideas of gender roles and actions, in any mode of fiction.
Oscar Rios’ “The Nature of Faith” was first published in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults(2010), it has not been republished.
The author speaks: I decided to set the plot of “Ahuizotl” in early New Spain (a couple of decades after the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire), becaue this period represented the primordial soup of the present Mexican idiosyncrasy. Aztec mythical creatures and gods, like the ahuizotl, were considered to be demons or diabolical beings by the Spaniards, so it was pretty interesting to “play” with the narrative, mixing that ancient lore with Lovecraftian Mythos and actual historical details.
—Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, Historical Lovecraft162
During their lifetimes, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard began to incorporate elements of Mesoamerican myth and geography into their Mythos fiction. Howard’s strange pillar in the Yucatán in “The Black Stone” (1931), and the Temple of the Toad in Guatemala in “The Thing on the Roof” (1932); Lovecraft with stories like “The Transition of Juan Romero” (written 1919), the invocations of Quetzacoatl in “The Curse of Yig” (1929) and “The Mound” (1940) written with Zealia Bishop, the hybrid exclamation “Cthulhutl fhtaghn! Niguratl-Yig! Yog-Sototl—” in “The Electric Executioner” (1930) with Adolphe de Castro. These snippets have fueled much speculation as to the interaction between the Mythos and Mesoamerican religions and cultures as explored by Richard L. Tierney in his essay “Cthulhu in Mesoamerica” and Stuart M. Boland in his “Interlude with Lovecraft.” The basic idea, I suspect, influenced Mike Mignola’s interpretation of Aztec religion and the Ogdru Jahad in the pages of Hellboy.
Howard, Lovecraft and his revision clients were not setting out to create any kind of cohesive mythology in the 1930s, the incidental references to Mesoamerican religion are fleeting and hinting glimpses of ties to a rich—and in the 1930s, still largely mysterious—mythology. Aztecs and Mayans in pulp fiction were often depicted as bloody-handed followers of pagan gods, contemporary prejudices against Mexicans and Native Americans mixing with the genuine excitement over the strange and fantastic ruins and artwork left behind. It is good to see someone pick up these threads and do something more with them.
They sand in an odd tongue, but repeated constantly “Chlúha! Chlúa! Dagoatl! Dagoatl!” and howled like dogs, their cries increasing.
—Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas, Historical Lovecraft160-161
Most of what we know of the ahuizotl comes from the Florentine Codex, although there are other artistic depictions of the “spiny aquatic thing,” and the depiction of the creature here—and its habits—are in accord with that. García-Rosas wisely goes into little detail about the creature’s relation to the Mythos; we are treated to odd dreams, strange encounters, a small obsidian image…and that is it, basically. There is more of implication than exposition, and that is generally how it should be in a Mythos story, where the mood is all-important.
What mood is that? “Ahuizotl” is very brief, almost a sketch. A journey from Old Spain to New Spain, where unknown horrors wait. The troubled nun, once Elena Villaplana, and for the last thirty years Ágata de la Inmaculada Concepción, follows in the footsteps of her conquistador brother and finds…something more than is dreamt of in her philosophy. She sees things without understanding them, records images and events without grasping their meaning. Almost an allegory for Spain itself, which tried to conquer, subjugate, and swallow entire peoples and cultures into itself.
Glad you enjoyed the Witch House and Museum story. Another tale which I revised for the “Museum” author, and which Wright has accepted, brings in von Juntz and his black book as almost the central theme. It concerns a mummy found in the crypt of a Cyclopean stone temple of fabulous antiquity; volcanically upheaved from the sea. —H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 24 Jul 1933, A Means to Freedom2.619
Regarding the scheduled “Out of the Æons”—I should say I did have a hand in it…..I wrote the damn thing! The original museum-mummy story submitted for revision was so utterly lousy (some crap about a Peruvian miner trapped underground) that I had to discard it altogether & prepare a fresh tale. But it’s really foolish to attempt jobs so extensive, when with the same amount of work one could write an acknowledged story of one’s own. This is the last collaboration of the sort I shall ever attempt—indeed, I’ve turned a deaf ear to all further suggestions from Sultan Malik, Mrs. Heald, Kid Bloch, & others. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 594
Glad you like “Out of the Æons”—which is, as I may have mentioned, virtually an original story of mine. All that survives from the initial Heald outline (worthy Mme. H. never bothered to write out any actual text for it!) is the basic idea of a living brain discovered in an ancient mummy. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Apr 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 603
I enjoyed very much the story “Out of the Eons”. It might as well have carried your name beneath the title, for it was yours, all the way through. —Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, May 1935, A Means To Freedom 2.851
“Out of the Æons” (also “Eons” and “Aeons” depending on the edition) was H. P. Lovecraft’s penultimate revision for Hazel Heald. Her part in this story appears to be comparatively less than that of “The Horror in the Museum” and “Winged Death”, and Lovecraft’s fleeting reference to “some crap about a Peruvian miner trapped underground” suggests a very different kind of story; as with other revision-clients, Lovecraft was taking increasing liberties in his ghost-writing to create a tale which was essentially his.
Hazel Heald’s own version of events is a little difficult to reconcile with Lovecraft’s:
I was a veginner and happened to be lucky enough to find HPL who certainly was the best to be found. he was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. for example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times to before he was completely satisfied! […] My “Out of the Eons” was inspired by trips that we had to taken [sic] to Boston and Cambridge museums together to visit any museum with HPL was certianly enough inspiration to write many tales. —Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937
The first part is difficult to reconcile with Lovecraft’s claim to have ghostwritten the piece, unless perhaps “Out of the Æons” had a very long development. More interesting is the latter comment in the letter which discusses their time together. Lovecraft’s 1932 trip is detailed in the entry for “The Man of Stone”, at least as far as Muriel Eddy and W. Paul Cook were aware of it, since Lovecraft never mentioned it in any published letter. Heald adds her own response to Cook’s piece:
I was interested in Paul Cook’s account of lovecraft’s Boston visit, and how he made him rest up before coming over to my house. He certainly did not act tired, and ate very well, although Cook said her gave him a good meal before he came. I wonder if he thought that he would be starved at my house? He seemed to enjoy himself a lot. Soon after that he came again, and we visited all of the museums together. That was where I conceived the idea for OUT OF THE EONS. —Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 14 Oct 1944
It is not clear which museums they might have visited, or when this might have occurred, although both the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts are possibilities, with collections of Egyptian artifacts and mummies that might have inspired the fictional Cabot Museum.
Muriel Eddy, who considered the divorced Mrs. Heald and Lovecraft a possible couple, commented on the story and ruminated on the match not working out:
One of these stands out vividly in my memory, “Out of the Eons”, a story of an Egyptian mummy inspired by a trip Hazel and H. P. L. took to a Boston museum, during which they stared at many mummies and geot steeped in Egyptian lore. […]
She confided in me that Lovecraft was truly a wonderful man, a real gentleman in every sense of the word. Schoalrly, precise, polite, grateful for her friendship…she was fast learning to like him a great deal. What should she do about it? Ah, that was the question!
She asked me to “drop a hint” when he visited our house…suggesting that Hazel was indeed a very lonely person, as most writers were, and enjoyed his company so much. I tried my best to have them both come to my house at the same time, but it never seemed convenient. He was really a busy man, with many commitments in the writing field, and this she could not understand. Gradually, his visits to Cambridge became less frequent. But she told me once that he sent her almost daily letters and many, many postcards […]
With a little encouragement, I am convinced that H.P.L. and Hazel might have married, and they would have made a good pair. But Lovecraft knew his health was failing, and perhaps did not feel like taking a chance on another marriage, seeing that his first one had failed so miserably. —Muriel M. Eddy, The Gentleman From Angell Street24-26
Lovecraft’s letters do not mention any romantic or quasi-romantic relationship with Hazel Heald; nor is it likely they would even if he was so inclined—which he probably was not. Neither Heald nor Eddy would have been aware that Lovecraft had never signed the papers to finalize the divorce with his wife Sonia. Heald gives little evidence to support Eddy’s assertions of possible matrimony, although some years later when Sonia’s account of their marriage “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” was published, she wrote to comment:
It is possible that Eddy mistook the relationship between Heald and Lovecraft for more than it was; perhaps Heald did as well. Whatever the case, the story was written and submitted to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, who accepted and published it in the April 1935 issue.
In content, the story is much like “The Mound” in that Lovecraft takes the opportunity to write an extensive addition to his mythos, with entities and locations new and old, ties to his past work (both under his own name and that of his revision-clients; Yig from “The Curse of Yig” appears, for example), and reference is made to the works of Clark Ashton Smith (Tsathoggua) and Robert E. Howard (von Junzt and his Black Book). Portions of the story have a much more pulpy atmosphere than usual for Lovecraft’s work, and T’yog, high priest of Shub-Niggurath’s dealings with those Muvian gods “friendly” to humanity (Shub-Niggurath, Nug and Yeb, and Yig) have a very high-fantasy cast; the whole story approaches a parody of Lovecraft’s typical work.
“Out of the Æons” is also notable for introducing Ghatanothoa, an entity described as “gigantic—tentacled—proboscidian—octopus-eyed—semi-amorphous—plastic—partly squamous and partly rugose”—who dwells in the Pacific Ocean and is served by “widespread secret cults of Asiatics, Polynesians, and heterogeneous mystical devotees.” Robert M. Price in “Lovecraft’s ‘Artificial Mythology'” argues that this is “really a new version of Cthulhu,” but later authors such as Lin Carter in his Xothic Cycle would make Ghatanothoa a son of Cthulhu, which would in turn lead to an expansion of the Cthulhu family tree along the style of Greek and Roman gods (eventually including Cthylla).
Despite all of its Lovecraftian excesses—or perhaps because of them—the story ended up being voted the best in the issue. Letters from readers in ‘The Eyrie’ praised it, and Heald:
Like a Lovecraft Masterpiece
John Malone, of Jackson, Mississippi, writes: “How does Hazel Heald do it? ‘Out of the Eons’ was like a masterpiece by H. P. Lovecraft. Hardly any of the horror was pictured, most of it was suggested, until the climax, when the revelation came!
Out of the Eons
Lewis F. Torrance, of Winfield, Kansas, writes: “‘Out of the Eons’ was the most remarkable, the best, the greatest, et al, narrative it has ever been my good fortune to read in Weird Tales. It seems to have that indefinable something that science-fiction has been lacking. Yours for more Hazel Heald.
In Praise of Mrs. Heald
B. M. Reynolds, of North Adams, Massachusetts, writes: “The April number was a treat. I cannot say enough in praise of the work of Hazel Heald. She is veritably a female Lovecraft. Her ‘Out of the Eons’ is a masterpiece…. I almost expected that Mr. Lovecraft himself would stroll into the museum and take a hand at deciphering the hieroglyphics on the scroll and cylinder. Let’s have more like this from Mrs. Heald…
—Weird Tales, “The Eyrie” June 1935
The frequent references to Lovecraft suggest that at least a couple of readers were in on the joke, and had guessed that this was really a Lovecraft piece under a pseudonym—a common enough practice in the pulps. Lovecraft took this in stride with good humor.
August Derleth and Arkham House republished the story in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and it has enjoyed an active literary afterlife, having been reprinted many times. The main historical import of the story, as with “The Horror in the Museum” was in the way it deftly expanded the awareness of the Mythos, since more stories by more authors in Weird Tales were using the same strange names and books of lore.
For those interested in Hazel Heald, however, the most interesting part of it must remain the story behind the story—for while we may never know exactly what inspiration she provided to Lovecraft, it was clearly their association and their relationship that provided the crux of the tale.
“Out of the Æons” may be read for free online here.
“Winged Death” is pretty much a ghost-written Ech-Pi-El-ism. All that honest Mrs. Heald had to start with was a cloudy idea about somebody killing somebody with bugs. Then she got a medical friend to shed some light on poisonous African insects, & decided to give the tale an African cast. That was all I had to go on. The plot—with the idea of transferred personality & the returning & ceiling-writing death-envoy—is entirely my own. But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 544
“Winged Death” was nothing to run a temperature over, though Belknap has taken an unaccountable fancy to it. My share in it is something like 90 to 95%. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Apr 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 129
Once again, H. P. Lovecraft takes a basic idea from a revision client and works it into his own very weird plot (more or less, there are some distinct parallels with another revision, “The Last Test”). For those interested in Hazel Heald’s contribution to this story, the question lies in what Lovecraft accounts for “5-10%”; no comment survives from Heald herself to shed light any light on the matter. In this case, that appears primarily to be the use of poisonous insects and an African setting—rare enough territory for Lovecraft, whose work very seldom went in that direction.
In 1934, Africa was still largely under the control of European powers. The Great War had seen a re-shuffling of African colonial possessions, but home rule by the indigenous peoples was rare, with only Ethiopia and Liberia free of European control—and Italy under Benito Mussolini would invade Ethiopia in 1935, beginning the Second Italo-Ethiopian War (and arguably part of the larger conflict that became World war II).
In the pulps, even in Weird Tales, Africa was still portrayed as the Dark Continent, with undiscovered marvels and horrors, black magic and primitive tribal societies far from white European rule that practiced body modification, cannibalism, and whatever else. The language and portrayal of native Africans were almost universally crude and prejudiced. H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs led the way with their Allan Quartermain and Tarzan novels; Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane tromps through the jungles and deserts of the continent before the Scramble for Africa; Donald Wandrei’s “The Tree-Men of M’bwa” (Weird Tales Feb 1932) and Hugh B. Cave’s “The Cult of the White Ape” (Weird Tales Feb 1933) are set in contemporary Africa, but might easily have been written fifteen years earlier or later, as far as the pulps were concerned.
Lovecraft’s literary visits to Africa were few. “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” (1921) touches on 18th-century British exploration of the Congo region, where Sir Wade Jermyn runs across a very Edgar Rice Burroughs-esque hidden city; “The Picture in the House” (1921) includes as a vital detail an engraving by the de Bry brothers about a cannibal butcher shop in the 16th century book Regnum Congo. In 1924, Lovecraft ghost-wrote “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” for the magician Harry Houdini, supposedly based on an adventure during the latter’s tour of Egypt. Meditations on the ruins of Great Zimbabwe, which Lovecraft believed were left by a lost white civilization, formed the basis for the poem “The Outpost” (1930) and the African link in “Medusa’s Coil” (1939). There are other, minor references scattered throughout some of his stories, but Africa as a setting and Africans as characters rarely appear in Lovecraft’s fiction.
So “Winged Death” stands out as one of Lovecraft’s few attempts to actually capture Africa, particularly contemporary Africa, as a setting. Lovecraft chose South Africa, and did at least basic research as far as names and geography. The town of “M’gonga” is invented, and the description represents the old Colonial attitudes, warts and all:
When I saw myself losing ground in Mombasa, I applied for my present situation in the interior—at M’gonga, only fifty miles from the Uganda line. It is a cotton and ivory trading-post, with only eight white men besides myself. A beastly hole, almost on the equator, and full of every sort of fever known to mankind. Poisonous snakes and insects everywhere, and niggers with diseases nobody ever heard of outside medical college. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death”
The “N-word” is used a grand total of three times in this story, which is less than in “Medusa’s Coil” or “The Rats in the Walls” (due solely to the name of the cat), and in keeping with Lovecraft’s style only ever as part of an account by a white character displaying their prejudice; the more neutral term “black” is used throughout when referring to the indigenous African characters. Arguably, this might be called restraint on Lovecraft’s part—he could certainly have gotten away with worse—but that’s a bit damning with faint praise, considering there was no need to use the word at all.
More interesting is the protagonist’s use of the name Galla, which is a racial slur for the Otomo people in Ethiopia, far from Uganda and South Africa where the story is set. Whether this was due to an error on Lovecraft’s part (possibly misreading antiquated sources as research), or a deliberate allusion to the “Gullah” people of Georgia and South Carolina whom Lovecraft discussed in a 1933 letter to R. H. Barlow (O Fortunate Floridian 88), is not clear. Intent, in cases like this, is impossible to tell.
The black supporting characters, notably the infected crocodile-hunter Mevana and the fly-victims Batta and Gamba, play their parts in this story but get little in the way of character development. This is nothing atypical of either Lovecraft or comparable African fiction; the focus is on the criminal mad scientist and the weird goings-on of the tale. The best that can be said is they are not portrayed in a notably negative way, aside from a touch of superstition.
Notable in the story is its sole connection to the Mythos, with an allusion to “The Outpost” (where “The Fishers from Outside” make their first appearance) and thus a kind of tie to “Medusa’s Coil”:
In one spot we came upon a trace of Cyclopean ruins which made even the Gallas run past in a wide circle. They say these megaliths are older than man, and that they used to be a haunt or outpost of “The Fishers from Outside”—whatever that means—and of the evil gods Tsadogwa and Clulu. To this day they are said to have a malign influence, and to be connected somehow with the devil-flies. —H. P. Lovecraft, “Winged Death”
Not a lot of effort has been made by subsequent Mythos authors to tie together “Clulu” or “Winged Death” and “Marse Clooloo” of “Medusa’s Coil”; and probably for obvious reasons, although Lin Carter made some use of “The Fishers from Outside.” Still, it’s worth noting that Lovecraft himself was apparently not against the idea of an African recension of the Mythos. There is a certain irony in the final statement of Thomas Slaunewaite, who had ridiculed the native beliefs throughout the story, in admitting at the end “THE BLACKS WERE RIGHT.”
For the average reader at the time, however, “Winged Death” would likely have been taken as no more than another tale of African black magic, in the vein of Edward Lucas White’s “Lukundoo” (1907, reprinted in Weird Tales Nov 1925) or Henry S. Whitehead’s “The Lips” (Weird Tales Sep 1929). At least one fan noted that it was essentially an inverse detective tale:
Bernard J. Kenton, of Cleveland, writes: “How can any discriminating reader find merit in other fantasy magazines when Weird Tales adds a new Poe to its columns every month or so? Of the recent writers, Hazel Heald strikes my fancy most, for whenever did anything so strikingly horrible as ‘The Horror in the Museum’ appear in print? Even Lovecraft—as powerful and artistic as he is with macabre suggestiveness—could hardly, I suspect, have surpassed the grotesque scene in which the other-dimensional shambler leaps out upon the hero. ‘Winged Death’ (Heald) makes life a living joy for the amateur criminologist. It is my prediction (verified at least in fiction such as ‘Winged Death’ and ‘The Solitary Hunters’) that the man of exceptional intellect will turn to crime when legitimate channels of amassing wealth are unnavigable; compared to them, Al Capone will look like a kid stealing milk bottles.
—”The Eyrie” in Weird Tales May 1934
All of the language and most of the plot were supplied by Lovecraft rather than Heald; it is possible that her medical friend provided some of the technical data on poisonous African flies, though it is equally possible that Lovecraft dug this up himself through research. Once the story was written, probably in the summer of 1932, Hazel Heald then tried to sell it—and, interestingly enough, did not go straight for Weird Tales.
Something odd befell a client of mine the other day—involving a story-element which I had intended & introduced under the impression that it was strictly original to me. The tale was sent to Handsome Harry [Harry Bates, editor of Strange Tales], & he rejected it on the ground that the element in question (the act of an insect dipping itself in ink & writing on a white surface with its own body) formed the crux of another tale which he had just accepted. Hell’s bells—& I thought I’d hit on an idea of absolute novelty & uniqueness! Now I’m hoping that my client will land with Wright before the S.T. item appears, for otherwise there will be a suspicion of plagiarism from the latter. —H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Aug 1932, Essential Solitude2.497
Strange Tales of Terror and Mystery was essentially a clone of Weird Tales, but it paid better (2 cents per word on acceptance for ST, vs. 0.5 cent per word on publication for WT), and it successfully poached several authors from Weird Tales during its short run, including Robert E. Howard and Henry S. Whitehead. However, it only ran seven issues between 1931 and 1933; the story with the insect-writing was never published in its pages. No doubt Lovecraft advised Heald to try the story on S.T. first, and only after it was rejected to submit it to Wright, who apparently held onto it for some time before it was finally published in 1934.
The story remained fairly obscure; August Derleth reprinted it as one of Lovecraft’s revisions in Marginalia (1944), but it was not reprinted again until bundled with the rest of the revisions and collaborations in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions in the 1970s, from where it began to be reprinted more frequently. Regrettably, no comment survives from Hazel Heald of what Lovecraft made of her plot-germ.
I’ve just ghost-written a tale for a client in a fashion amounting virtually to original composition—about a waxwork museum or chamber of horrors where there is a rumour that not all of the fabulous monsters displayed are artificial. I’ve included Tsathoggua among the blasphemies. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Oct 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 394
After the successful sale of “The Man of Stone” (1932), Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft pursued further “revisions”—which, as with his client Zealia Bishop, critics and biographers assume amounted to Lovecraft writing the story based on an idea or synopsis provided by Heald. This is certainly the case as far as Lovecraft was willing to discuss it in his letters:
Yes—the waxwork museum story is mostly my own; entirely so in wording, & also so far as concerns the background of Alaskan archaeology & antique horror. You will find Tsathoggua mentioned. —H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Jun 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 420
The Horror in the Museum—a piece which I “ghost-wrote” for a client from a synopsis so poor that I well-nigh discarded it—is virtually my own work. Glad you found it entertaining. There will be two more Heald tales equally dependent on my pen. —H. P. Lovecraft to Richard Ely Morse, 28 Jul 1933, Selected Letters4.229
There is not much to gainsay this. Other pulpsters of the period noted Lovecraft’s style without needing to be told. Heald herself does not comment on the writing of the story in any surviving letter, but she did note in a much later letter to August Derleth:
He was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. For example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times before he was completely satisfied! —Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937
This would appear to jive with a comment on collaboration or revision work that Lovecraft made to another correspondent:
These alleged authors are pretty easy to handle—discard their dope little by little & substitute your own, & in the end they not only swallow it but honestly believe they wrote it themselves! Thus some of my revision clients congratulate themselves when the readers of Weird Tales praise stories (like “The Late Test”, “The Curse of Yig”, “The Horror in the Museum”, “Winged Death”, &c.) that I wrote. —H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 28 Mar 1934, Letters to James F. Morton 350
So the possibility remains that the revision process for this story could have been a bit more involved than Lovecraft simply writing the tale from scratch based on a mostly-discarded synopsis. Presumably, the business arrangement was identical to that of Lovecraft’s other client: Heald would have paid a fixed sum for the work, and then tried to sell it to the pulp magazines for whatever she could get. None of their correspondence survives to give greater insight into this aspect of their dealings or the composition of their stories.
The idea of a waxwork museum and its chamber of horrors goes back to the 19th century, with Madame Toussads in London being the archetype and inspiration for a number of other such galleries, and the horror stories and comics eventually created in tribute to them. It is notable that the same year “The Horror in the Museum” was released, the horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum(1933, once thought lost), hit theaters. Lovecraft recalled:
Haven’t done much cinema-viewing, but I did drop in to see that “Wax Museum” thing—especially since I had revised (in fact, virtually ghost-written) a tale on a similar theme for a client. (you’ll see it in the current W.T.) As a story, the film was of course childishly cheap—but it did have some effective horror-touches—especially when the mask falls off & reveals the monstrosity beneath. —H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 13 Jul 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 67
This puts the Heald/Lovecraft story in a small but distinct media-spanning horror tradition, one which includes the 1953 and 2005 House of Wax films, Terror in the Wax Museum (1973), and “Vandoom, The Man Who Made A Creature” (Tales to Astonish #17, 1961, by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Dick Ayers), as well as pulp stories such as Robert Bloch’s “Waxworks” (1939). The wax museum with its simulacra and tradition of a chamber of horrors offers a ready-made setting for a number of simple plots, perhaps the simplest and most realistic of which involves actual human remains incorporated into one or more of the figures—an idea with its parallels in real life—and thematically linked to “Pickman’s Model,” where the horrors are taken from life.
But this is an H. P. Lovecraft story, and that rather simple premise served as the bare beginnings for yet another tale of cosmic horror. As with “The Mound,” the opportunity was presented to add a major chapter to the nascent Mythos, trying together not only some of Lovecraft’s fiction; writers such as August Derleth, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard all noted their own creations (the Tcho-Tcho, Book of Eibon, and the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, respectively) mentioned, and it introduced a new entity, Rhan-Tegoth, who would go on to feature in stories by later writers.
What did Hazel Heald make of it? We don’t have her account, although the fact that it sold (and that she didn’t have to sue Weird Tales to get the money) must have been gratifying. So too, the readers of Weird Tales were enthusiastic; one wrote:
A Bouquet for Mrs. Heald
Bernard J. Kenton, of Cleveland, writes: “How can any discriminating reader find merit in other fantasy magazines when Weird Tales adds a new Poe to its columns every month or so? Of the recent writers, Hazel Heald strikes my fancy most, for whenever did anything so strikingly horrible as ‘The Horror in the Museum’ appear in print? Even Lovecraft—as powerful and artistic as he is with macabre suggestiveness—could hardly, I suspect, have surpassed the grotesque scene in which the other-dimensional shambler leaps out upon the hero. —Weird Tales “The Eyrie” May 1934
The response which most sticks out, however, was another entry in ‘The Eyrie’:
“H. P. Lovecraft’s tale of witchcraft and the elder gods, The Dreams in the Witch-House, was superb; while not far behind was Hazel Heald’s The Horror in the Museum—a particularly exceptional tale for a woman to write, in that she built up the horror sequence as few women writers have ever been capable of doing. —Weird Tales “The Eyrie” Sep 1933
Weird Tales was perhaps better than other science fiction and fantasy pulps of its day with regards to women writers (such as Greye La Spina and C. L. Moore), poets (including Alice I’Anson and Grace Stillman), fans (notably Gertrude Hemcken and a young Margaret St. Clair), and artists (Margaret Brundage being a particular favorite), but a degree of sexism still existed in the pages of the magazine. To us today, with women authors like Joyce Carol Oates and Nancy Collins, who grew up reading Shirley Jackson and Alice B. Sheldon (James Tiptree, Jr.) it seems strange to imagine “few women” capable of writing a horror sequence. Even in the 1930s, readers of horror would probably have recognized Lady Cynthia Asquith and Edith Nesbit.
So, an odd comment. Perhaps Heald reconciled herself with the satisfaction that the story was popular enough to be reprinted in the “Not at Night” anthology Terror by Night (1934), and again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937). If she was wise enough to only sell Weird Tales first American serial rights, these reprints may even have netted her some profit—although there is evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that, like Zealia Bishop, Heald had fallen behind on paying for revision services and ended up typing “The Thing on the Doorstep” for Lovecraft in lieu of part of the debt.
Whatever the exact nature of their business arrangements, they were apparently satisfactory enough that three more “revisions” would issue from Lovecraft’s pen, under Hazel Heald’s name.
“The Horror in the Museum” may be read for free online here.
I found Lovecraft diffident but very gallant, with a gallantry of an era we only read about in mid-Victorian literature. In our conversation we discusses among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma […]
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale259
After the successful sale of “The Curse of Yig,” Zealia Brown Reed appeared eager, and Lovecraft willing, to pursue a second ghost-writing job, in between his other revision work—Zealia still pursuing other stories and submitting them to, among other places, Weird Tales and Cupid’s Diary. The extent of her involvement in “The Mound” was apparently substantially less than in “The Curse of Yig,” at least according to Lovecraft:
I hade hoped to be able to send along the weird Indian tale when replying to yours of the 11th, but once more the Fates were against me. It is fortunate that you are in no haste for it, & I surely hope I can produce a good piece of work when I am at last able to undertake the construction. No—There is not any other story-nucleus in my possession. The only one is the cryptic Oklahoma mound & its taciturn guardians.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 28 Oct 1928, The Spirit of Revision135
My next real bill will come when I deliver the Indian ghost story, a thing I intend to do as soon as I recover enough mental & nervous energy to resume creative work.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 22 Jan 1929, The Spirit of Revision 138
As soon as I finish my current De Castro quota I shall tackle another incident-germ (“plot-germ” would be too flattering a designation!” of Mrs. Reed’s producing a story which will be virtually my own. I hope (mildly, because I’ll get my $20.00 anyhow!) Wright will take it when he’s done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 21 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude1.225
My chief—& sufficiently submerging—occupation is concocting what will pass as a tale by the author of “Yig”, though it will really be altogether my own, as woven around the merest non-plot suggestion. It is getting to be almost a novelette—& I’ll be curious to see how you like it if it ever gets into print. The provisional name is “The Mound.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Dec 1929, Essential Solitude 1.231
That St. Louis mound item is of especial interest to me just now, insomuch as my current job is the weaving of a tale around a similar thing in Oklahoma. The alleged author intended to let the story go as a simple tale of a haunted mound, with a couple of Indian ghosts around it; but I decided at once that such a thing would be insufferable tame & flat. Accordingly I am having the mound turn out to be the gateway of a primordial & forgotten subterranean world—the home of a fearsomely ancient & decadent race cut off from the outer earth since the prehistoric sinking of fabulous Atlantis & Lemuria. In the course of the tale I introduce a man who descends into the abyss—a Spaniard of Coronado’s expedition of 1541—& another, in the present age who begins a descent but very hastily returns to the upper air after seeing a certain thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw118
The gist of Lovecraft’s comments on the story as it was being written in 1929 suggest a very simple premise. R. H. Barlow, who re-typed the story in 1934, records the original plot-germ on the typescript as:
There is an Indian mound near here, which is haunted by a headless ghost. Sometimes it is a woman.
In Caddo County, Oklahoma there are a group of rocky hills—actual hills, not earthen mounds such as Cahokia Mounds in Illinois—known as the Caddo Mounds, near the small towns of Binger and Hydro. Two of these in particular have been suggested as the ultimate source for Zealia’s transmitted legend: Ghost Mound and Dead Woman’s Mound. Original accounts are sparse, but newspaper articles provide some insight into what she may have heard from the Comptons:
Less has been recorded in print about Dead Woman or Dead Woman’s Mound, although there is an account from resident Laura Cox Brand in the 1930s which may give the flavor of local legends. John Biggs has some photographs of the mounds, for those eager to see what they look like. Lovecraft’s own account of the inspiration as “tame & flat” is apparent in the story when he writes:
I had gone into Oklahoma to track down and correlate one of the many ghost tales which were current among the white settlers, but which had strong Indian corroboration, and—I felt sure—an ultimate Indian source. They were very curious, these open-air ghost tales; and though they sounded flat and prosaic in the mouths of the white people, they had earmarks of linkage with some of the richest and obscurest phases of native mythology. All of them were woven around the vast, lonely, artificial-looking mounds in the western part of the state, and all of them involved apparitions of exceedingly strange aspect and equipment.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
Lovecraft supplemented Zealia’s legend with his own research—the description of John Willis, U.S. Marshal and his phantom riders, was taken from Myths and Legends of Our Own Land (1896) or another contemporary source.
As a ghost-writer, working in the same Oklahoma setting as “The Curse of Yig,” Lovecraft was at pains to be consistent with the previous tale—Yig reappears (he had previously been mentioned as “Niguratl-Yig!” in “The Electric Executioner,” written in-between “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”), as does Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle, who gets a much-expanded role as a source of local lore and legend. The first two Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories thus form a kind of mini-mythos of their own—although Lovecraft would take the opportunity afforded by this revision to write something much more expansive and weird than Zealia Bishop probably intended.
Therein lies a problem.
In her memoir of Lovecraft, Zealia asserted:
At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance. Yet the short novel has the same Lovecraftian mood and flavor as the other horror stories, because Belknap himself had long ben a protégé of Lovecraft, and had himself absorbed much of the Lovecraft manner in tales of the macabre.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale260
In terms of polite fictions and little white lies, this is a load of horseshit. Zealia’s memoir was published in 1953, in a book published under her own name, while it’s possible that in the intervening 25 years she had convinced herself this was the truth, it is clear from Lovecraft’s letters that he wrote the whole story. What may have begun or been intended as a folksy ghost story of the west—something like Robert E. Howard’s later tale “The Horror from the Mound”—became a substantial Lovecraftian epic, a major work in Lovecraft’s developing artificial mythology. Which makes it rather difficult to say much about Zealia’s own influence on this tale, since it appears to be almost pure Lovecraft from start to finish.
So what is there to talk about in terms of her own contribution to the story?
For starters, the description of Binger and its inhabitants certainly seems to owe a great deal Lovecraft’s client rather than his own research. When we read:
Binger is a modest cluster of frame houses and stores in the midst of a flat windy region full of clouds of red dust. There are about 500 inhabitants besides the Indians on a neighbouring reservation; the principal occupation seeming to be agriculture. The soil is decently fertile, and the oil boom has not reached this part of the state. My train drew in at twilight, and I felt rather lost and uneasy—cut off from wholesome and every-day things—as it puffed away to the southward without me. The station platform was filled with curious loafers, all of whom seemed eager to direct me when I asked for the man to whom I had letters of introduction. I was ushered along a commonplace main street whose rutted surface was red with the sandstone soil of the country, and finally delivered at the door of my prospective host. Those who had arranged things for me had done well; for Mr. Compton was a man of high intelligence and local responsibility, while his mother—who lived with him and was familiarly known as “Grandma Compton”—was one of the first pioneer generation, and a veritable mine of anecdote and folklore.
That evening the Comptons summed up for me all the legends current among the villagers, proving that the phenomenon I had come to study was indeed a baffling and important one. The ghosts, it seems, were accepted almost as a matter of course by everyone in Binger. Two generations had been born and grown up within sight of that queer, lone tumulus and its restless figures. The neighbourhood of the mound was naturally feared and shunned, so that the village and the farms had not spread toward it in all four decades of settlement; yet venturesome individuals had several times visited it. Some had come back to report that they saw no ghosts at all when they neared the dreaded hill; that somehow the lone sentinel had stepped out of sight before they reached the spot, leaving them free to climb the steep slope and explore the flat summit. There was nothing up there, they said—merely a rough expanse of underbrush.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
It seems likely that the bulk of this description likely came from Zealia, though Lovecraft put it into his own words and worked it into the story in his own fashion.
“The Mound” touches on a number of points of interest—too many to go into any great level of detail on them all. For example, the people of K’n-Yan are a permutation of the idea of the “Mound-Builders,” a race that preceded the Native Americans on the North American continent and was displaced and eradicated by them. While this idea has no archaeological merit, Henry Shetrone’s The Mound-Builders (1930) firmly established that Native Americans had built mounds such as Cahokia and Fort Ancient, it provided plentiful room for fantasy—Manly Wade Wellman’s Shonokins, which appeared some decades later in Weird Tales as adversaries of occult detective John Thunstone are another example—and yet, the idea of the “Mound-Builders” was essentially a racialist one, used to downplay the achievements and capacities of the indigenous peoples of the Americas by arguing that they did not have the capacity to build such structures or complicated polities. This is similar today to how arguments of “ancient Aliens” being responsible for the building of pyramids denigrate the legacy of the actual human builders of pyramids.
Lovecraft and Bishop almost certainly weren’t thinking things through quite so thoroughly. The treatment of Grey Eagle in this regard may be taken as singular: he is the most prominent Native American character in the entire corpus of Lovecraft’s work. That he is also a dime-novel stereotype is perhaps unfortunate, but the depiction may well have arisen more out of ignorance than malice: Lovecraft had never yet met a Native American. As much as contemporary readers may wince when reading his dialogue…
You let um ’lone, white man. No good—those people. All under here, all under there, them old ones. Yig, big father of snakes, he there. Yig is Yig. Tiráwa, big father of men, he there. Tiráwa is Tiráwa. No die. No get old. Just same like air. Just live and wait. One time they come out here, live and fight. Build um dirt tepee. Bring up gold—they got plenty. Go off and make new lodges. Me them. You them. Then big waters come. All change. Nobody come out, let nobody in. Get in, no get out. You let um ’lone, you have no bad medicine. Red man know, he no get catch. White man meddle, he no come back. Keep ’way little hills. No good. Grey Eagle say this. (ibid.)
…it’s important to remember that Lovecraft was working within an established tradition of depiction Native Americans that lasted from at least the late 19th century through to the westerns of the 1960s and 70s. That Lovecraft did not transcend the limitations of the stereotype regarding Native Americans is unfortunate, but not terribly surprising.
The culture of K’n-Yan itself is the most developed alien civilization that Lovecraft would depict until At the Mountains of Madness, written in early 1931. Critics have seen influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Pellucidar novels and Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, and the arguments for both are not difficult to make. The K’n-Yan are portrayed as near-human, but wise, powerful, and decadent. Their “affection-groups”—essentially polyamorous relationships—recall the free love group of which Lovecraft’s friend James Ferdinand Morton was a member. They are insular yet imperialistic; given to necromancies and slavery, cruel and worshipping strange alien gods—the parallels to Michael Moorcock’s Melniboné are uncanny but probably coincidental; both writers were drawing off of similar ideas of an exceedingly ancient, powerful, and decadent culture approaching the end of its natural lifespan (in Splengerian terms). Rome, as depicted by Gibbons in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, might be another good data point for comparison.
Fantasy racism, which Lovecraft had toyed with in stories since “Polaris,” reaches a kind of peak here. The K’n-yans had fought, conquered, and subjugated the intelligent race in the red-litten caverns of Yoth, who had been bred over generations into beasts of burden…and a food source, recalling the revelations of “The Rats in the Walls”:
The beasts or gyaa-yothn, they explained, surely were curious things; but were really very harmless. The flesh they ate was not that of intelligent people of the master-race, but merely that of a special slave-class which had for the most part ceased to be thoroughly human, and which indeed was the principal meat stock of K’n-yan. They—or their principal ancestral element—had first been found in a wild state amidst the Cyclopean ruins of the deserted red-litten world of Yoth which lay below the blue-litten world of K’n-yan. That part of them was human, seemed quite clear; but men of science could never decide whether they were actually the descendants of the bygone entities who had lived and reigned in the strange ruins. The chief ground for such a supposition was the well-known fact that the vanished inhabitants of Yoth had been quadrupedal. This much was known from the very few manuscripts and carvings found in the vaults of Zin, beneath the largest ruined city of Yoth. But it was also known from these manuscripts that the beings of Yoth had possessed the art of synthetically creating life, and had made and destroyed several efficiently designed races of industrial and transportational animals in the course of their history—to say nothing of concocting all manner of fantastic living shapes for the sake of amusement and new sensations during the long period of decadence. The beings of Yoth had undoubtedly been reptilian in affiliations, and most physiologists of Tsath agreed that the present beasts had been very much inclined toward reptilianism before they had been crossed with the mammal slave-class of K’n-yan. (ibid.)
The use of “master-race” in this context is likely derived more from American slavery rhetoric than scientific racialism—and the Nazis had not yet risen to power. Burroughs led the way in scientific romance in applying Colonialist fiction tropes of race and racial relationships to aliens and fantasy races; African and Asian peoples became various-colored Martians. Lovecraft makes a point to that effect:
The average interplanetary tale is just a camouflaged “Western” with the pioneers & soldiers called “space-explorers”, & the Indians called “Martians” or “lunarians” or something like that.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilson Shepherd, 29 May 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 250
Of all the characters in the novel, one of the most tragic is T’la-yub:
In the year 1545, as he reckoned it, Zamacona began what may well be accepted as his final series of attempts to leave K’n-yan. His fresh opportunity came from an unexpected source—a female of his affection-group who conceived for him a curious individual infatuation based on some hereditary memory of the days of monogamous wedlock in Tsath. Over this female—a noblewoman of moderate beauty and of at least average intelligence named T’la-yub—Zamacona acquired the most extraordinary influence; finally inducing her to help him in an escape, under the promise that he would let her accompany him.
—Zealia Bishop & H. P. Lovecraft, “The Mound”
Her introduction, in some form or another, was apparently necessary for Lovecraft to subscribe to at least the general appearance of keeping with Zealia’s initial idea: “Sometimes it is a woman.” The tragedy of her appearance is underscored almost immediately by Zamacona’s immediate desire for infidelity: whatever affection she held for him, he does not love her in return:
T’la-yub he would perhaps allow to share his fortunes, for she was by no means unattractive; though possibly he would arrange for her sojourn amongst the plains Indians, since he was not overanxious to preserve links with the manner of life in Tsath. For a wife, of course, he would choose a lady of Spain—or at worst, an Indian princess of normal outer-world descent and a regular and approved past. But for the present T’la-yub must be used as a guide. (ibid.)
The “Indian princess” is another stub of stereotype wedged into the mix…but Lovecraft had little concern for romantic relationships. His major interest in the story was for primal weirdness, and he achieves that in large part by working in references to his friend Clark Ashton Smith’s creation Tsathoggua:
[…] the “revision” job I’m doing now is the composition of an original tale from a single paragraph of locale & subject orders—not even a plot germ. The only reason I do this kind of thing is that the pay is absolutely certain, whereas on signed original work one has to take one’s chances of acceptance or rejection. […] My present job is a Reed yarn to be entitled “The Mound”—with the Oklahoma locale of “Yig,” but with ramifications extending to blasphemously elder worlds, & a race of beings that came down from the stars with great Cthulhu. I also bring in a Spaniard who deserted from Coronado’s party in 1541. This job—& the two De Castro jobs preceding it—will tend to limber up my fictional pen for the spontaneous effusions to follow!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill187-188
As for me—Tsathoggua made such an impression on my fancy that I am using him in the “revision” (i.e.—”ghost-writing”) job I am now doing—telling of some things connected with his worship before he appeared on the earth’s surface. As you know my tale concerns a nether world of unbelievable antiquity below the mound-&-pueblo region of the American southwest, & the visit thereto in 1541-45 by one of Coronado’s men—Panfilio de Zamacona y Nuñez. It is a place litten by a blue radiance due to magnetic force & radio-activity, & is peopled by the primal proto-humans brought down from the stars by Great Cthulhu—a forgotten, decadent race who cut themselves off from the upper world when Atlantis & Lemuria sank. But there was a race of beings in the earth infinitely older than they—the saurian quadrupeds of the red-litten caverns of Yoth which yawn underneath the blue-litten caverns of K’n-yan. When the first men came to K’n-Yan they found the archaeological reliques of Yoth, & speculated curiously upon them. At the point where I introduce our friend Tsathoggua, the Spanish explorer has entered K’n-yan, has encountered a party of friendly natives led by one Gll’-Hthaa-Ynn, & is being escorted to the great city of Tsath—mounted on a monstrous horned & half-human quadruped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 192
Shall be interested to know what you think of “The Mound” when you get around to it. You will learn therein—back to a certain point—where Klarkash-Ton’s nighted Tsathoggua cam from.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, Jan 1930, Lovecraft Annual #8(21)
Tsathoggua introduced in Smith’s story “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros,” which was submitted to Weird Tales and rejected, but the manuscript was shared by Lovecraft who was so taken with the entity that he included references to him in “The Mound.” Smith would later go on to include references to Tsathoggua in several tales, though he was first mentioned in print in “The Whisperer in Darkness” (Weird Tales Aug 1931).
The manuscript of “The Mound” was completed by Lovecraft in December 1929, and sent to his friend and revision collaborator Frank Belknap Long, to be sent off to Zealia for approval. Unfortunately, there was a snag.
I have just learned to my surprise & dismay that Little Belknap has, through a misunderstanding, not yet forwarded to you the completed MS. of “The Mound” which I sent him late in December to read & pass onward. […] He thought you might wish to see it first in rough draught, so that you can order any needed changes concerning Binger local colour &c. […] If Wright takes the tale—as he is very likely to do—you will make a very handsome profit. Sonny seems to think it is very good—I can’t resist enclosing his note regarding it—& is inclined to spoof Grandpa for doing it for $20.00; but I never raise a figure I have quoted in advance. That is why I can’t make revision pay!
I hope you will like the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 14 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 168
At around 29,000 words, “The Mound” would have netted $145 dollars if sold at half-a-cent per word—Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—so Lovecraft had every right to be optimistic, not least because Zealia still owed him money from previous revision work. The manuscript was still untyped, and Lovecraft suggested it be typed up by his friend and sometime collaborator C. M. Eddy, Jr., who was in a bad way financially. Zealia agreed.
[C. M. Eddy, Jr.] was prodigiously grateful for the “Mound” MS., & promises a good typed copy & carbon in something like a week’s time. I furnished him with all the needed supplies, gave him warning about all the difficult & artificial words in the MS., & in general did what I could to make the job less formidable for him. I think he will have no difficulty, & believe the resulting text will be very neat & accurate. I am telling him not to bother about the diacritical marks on the Spanish & artificial words, since I can easily supply these with pen & ink when I go over the MS. in the end. Wright will have a very legible & prepossessing MS. to survey when the time comes for him to pass judgment upon it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 29 Jan 1930, The Spirit of Revision 173
The story was duly submitted to Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales…who promptly bounced it.
The damned fool has just turned down the story I ‘ghost-wrote’ for my Kansas City client, on the ground that it was too long for single publication, yet structurally unadapted to division. I’m not worrying, because I’ve got my cash; but it does sicken me to watch the caprices of that editorial jackass!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, Feb 1930, Essential Solitude 251
Confound that unutterable Chicago dunce! The fool could have divided the story as well as not—but he was evidently in the same dense mood which afflicted him when he rejected Smith’s “Satampra Zeiros.”
If I were you I would try the tale on the following magazine in the following order: Astounding Stories Amazing Stories Science Wonder Stories
[…] If these three markets prove closed, you might ask Wright whether he would consider a condensation of the story. With plenty of time, I might manage to pare the thing down here & there—although it would be a monstrous task. You could ask Wright his maximum word-limit of acceptance. Not long ago he accepted a tale of Smith’s on condition of its abridgment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, Feb 1930, The Spirit of Revision 176
Lovecraft was essentially listing all the pulps in early 1930 that might accept weird or science fiction stories, including Science Wonder Stories, which was owned by Hugo Gernsback and Lovecraft knew from painful experience was difficult to collect money from. His exasperation must have been high to have even suggested abridging the story—a practice he was normally loathe to do—and eventually Frank Belknap Long abridged it by removing some pages of the original typescript (O Fortunate Floridian145n2).
Even abridged, the story remained unsold.
On 22 July 1930, Zealia Brown Reed married D. W. Bishop, and was known thereafter as Zealia B. Bishop. In 1934, Lovecraft was visiting R. H. Barlow in DeLand, Florida. A collector of pulp manuscripts, the issue of “The Mound” arose, and he inquired about purchasing or making a copy of it, as he was working to systemize the Mythosian lore within it:
You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mound to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just now to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once—If he decides to buy it—is it for publication or just to keep the Mss.? You did not make that part clear and I should like to know. Do you suppose Mr. Barlow would be interested in reading Medusa’s Coil? I have it and a carbon copy of The Mound except the first three pages—Have you time to recall them were you to see it?
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177
As I am pointing out to Ar-e’ch-Bei, Pnom’s account of Ts. can be reconciled with the legendry told to Zamarcona (sic) in The Mound. The myth, through aeons, was varied in the usual mythopoeic fashion by the cavern-dwellers, who came at last to believe that merely the images of Tsathoggua, and not the god himself, had emerged in former cycles from the inner gulf. Ts., travelling fourthdimensionally from Saturn, first entered the Earth through the lightless abyss of N’kai; and, not unnaturally, the Yothians regarded N’kai as his place of origin.
—Clark Ashton Smith, c. 16 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 560
Ar-E’ch-Bei, with his mania for systematisation, will be infinitely grateful to you for your transcripts from the parchments of Pnom. I am mostly interested to know that Pnom’s account can be reconciled with the rambling lore gathered in subterrene K’nyan by Panfilo de Zamacona, & am especially impressed by the knowledge of Tsathoggua’s present whereabouts. Suppose an expedition were to be sent to unearth It? What would ensue?
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 Jun 1934, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 563
I see that CAS is linking up his own Tsathogguan data with the legends in “The Mound”, to that a minimum of discrepancies will exist.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 25 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 142
As to this matter of the Bishop MSS.—of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. B—in view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revision—to let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her main literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned. Now as to the correct procedure—of course, “Medusa’s Coil” is a matter wholly separate from “the Mound”. […] Now as to “The Mound”—probably there’ll be only three pages missing from the complete version; so that if you’ll type duplicates of these, you’ll have both copies in good shape. You can then let Mrs. B. do what she likes with the abridged version, or offer to try to place it for her if she’ll tell you the place to send it. I hardly think she’ll insist on retaining a copy of the original if you’ll assure her of its safety, & guarantee to let her see it or copy it if she ever wishes o do so. This is especially true if you let her have the abridged copy. After all, typing three double-spaced pages isn’t so bad a job—especially when it solves a problem so neatly. I’m writing Mrs. B. now, & urging that she does not insist on keeping a copy of the unabridged version. Enclosed—incidentally—is her epistle, for which I have no further use.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143-144
Zealia’s letter to Barlow of 11 July 1934, shows she intended to have Long shop around the fresh typescript to the pulps once again, but it remained unsold. Nevertheless, the personal and professional relationship remained.
Glad the unabridged “Mound” wasn’t an extreme disappointment. Mrs. B. has begun to pay up her debt in weekly dollar instalments—because she wants more revision done.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 157
As late as 1936, Lovecraft claimed that Zealia Bishop owed Long $43, himself $26, and Maurice W. Moe (a friend and associate) $11 (O Fortunate Floridian! 370). The sum to Lovecraft was outstanding at the time of his death in 1937. Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, was fired from his position and died in 1940. He was replaced as editor by Dorothy McIlwraith…and in the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, an abridged version of “The Mound” finally appeared, as by Z. B. Bishop.
This abridgment was made by August Derleth, based on existing annotated typescripts from Long & Barlow. Derleth appears to have actively been working with McIlwraith to get previously unpublished Lovecraftiana into Weird Tales, and eventually into Arkham House volumes. “The Curse of Yig” had been reprinted by Wright in the April 1939 Weird Tales (under the byline Z. B. Bishop), so regular readers of the magazine would have been familiar when the quasi-sequel appeared. “The Eyrie,” the letters-column of Weird Tales, was much-shrunken from Wright’s days, but “The Mound” was still praised by a couple of fans as one of the better stories in the issue.
The “unabridged” version of “The Mound” (based on Long’s altered typescript0 was published in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943, Arkham House)—where it was finally acknowledged as one of Lovecraft’s collaborations, although the principal authorship was still credited to Bishop. Smith, on reading it, wrote to Derleth:
Such revisions as “Out of the Aeons,” “The Mound,” and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer” are genuine Lovecraftian masterpieces.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith342
In 1953, Arkham House released The Curse of Yig, containing all three of the Zealia Bishop/Lovecraft stories, as well as her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View.” She would recall there about their relationship:
But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H. P. L: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken. And in me, Lovecraft had a pupil who could have been encouraged to write for the contemporary love story magazines instead of led away from them, for, after his untimely death, I found the editors of confession and love pulp magazines to be ruthless yet most helpful critics, and managed to sell stories to them at far better prices than I was paid for those weird tales I had written under Lovecraft’s tutelage.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale263
There is some truth to what Zealia wrote; Lovecraft’s interests did not lie in the confession pulps, and she probably would have had more luck with an agent that had experience in that line. The three Bishop/Lovecraft tales were not successful enterprises. While “The Curse of Yig” did finally sell, and was even anthologized, “Medusa’s Coil” only sold in 1939 and “The Mound” remained unsold until 1940. Her other stories that Lovecraft had a hand in revising or correcting which are mentioned in her letters, such as “The Unchaining,” appear to have not sold and are now apparently lost.
In 1989, a corrected text for “The Mound” was made by S. T. Joshi, based on the original typescripts, and published unabridged in The Horror in the Museum & Other Revisions (1989). It may be read online for free.
ZEALIA BISHOP is not primarily a writer of supernatural tales; her preference is for romantic fiction, of which she has written and published far more than she has in the genre of the weird. Her fantasties have appeared only in Weird Tales, and in two book collections bearing the name of her mentor in the genre—Beyond the Wall of Sleep and Marginalia.
In private life she is the wife of D. W. Bishop,—to whose faith in her, with that of her son, Jim, she credits her first book—and mistress if Highland View Farm not far out of Kansas City. As an active member of the National Federation of Press Women, the D.A.R., the New England HIstoric Genealogical Society, and the Missouri Women’s press CLub, Mrs. BIshop’s interests range far beyond the boundaries of the attractive Bishop estate, where the Bishop family lives in keeping with its character, simply, and with inherent ease in an atmosphere of true old Southern hospitality.
In addition to Weird Tales, Mrs. Bishop has contributed to Life Story, The Kansas Magazine, and other newspapers and magazines. She is the author of an historical series about Clay County, Missouri, and of two as yet unpublished novels.
—Dustjacket bio of Zealia Bishop on The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House)
In 1928, she was Zealia Brown Reed, a divorced single mother to her young son Jim, working as a journalist and court reporter, and taking correspondence courses from Columbia University. A year earlier, she had begun a correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft, who offered revision services and guidance to writers, but their letters took on a friendly character that went beyond the strictly professional, in the way of most of Lovecraft’s letters. Now they were entering a new stage of their relationship, the creation of “The Curse of Yig.”
Zealia’s account of the writing of what would become “The Curse of Yig” is as follows:
There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. the story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted with this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showered me with letters and instructions.
Now at last I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it abut the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story. I was not too happy about the story and was fearful for any of my family to read it, lest they ostracize me for making such a tale out of the story Grandma Compton had told. But it was really fixed with imagination and reality, and Lovecraft urged that it be sent out immediately.
Hesitantly I followed his advice. Out it went, not once but many times—until finally I shelved it with all the rejection slips, refusing to write anything else and wondering how many ditors had shuddered over that story. Yet the gnawing urge within me kept on. But I wanted to write about things I knew—not drive myself to create tales of a fantastic world and people of which I knew nothing.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale257-258
Zealia’s account has a few discrepancies from the evidence of Lovecraft’s letters. Written for the book publication of the three tales Lovecraft had ghostwritten for her, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” maintains the polite fiction that Zealia was the primary author of “The Curse of Yig,” “The Mound,” and “Medusa’s Coil.” In his own letters, Lovecraft had a different version of events:
I just fixed a weirdstory for a client in Kansas City, so if you ever see a tale in print called “The Curse of Yig”, you’ll know that I came damn close to writing the whole thing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 11 Mar 1928, Essential Solitude1.137
Of late revision has absolutely annihilated me, but I got one job (writing a weird tale from synoptic notes) which gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes. As a result, if you see a story in W.T. called “The Curse of Yig”, you will know that all of the writing & most of the plot are mine.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja206
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the new W.T., next your verses. The “authoress”, Mrs. Reed, is a client for whom Long & I have done lots of work, & this specimen is well-nigh a piece of original composition on my part, since all I had to go by was a synopsis of notes describing a pioneer couple, the attack on the husband by snakes, the bursting of his corpse in the dark, & the subsequent madness of the wife. All the plot & motivation in the present tale are my own—I invented the snake-god, the curse, the prologue & epilogue, the point about the identity of the corpse, & the monstrously suggestive aftermath. To all intents & purposes it’s my story—though not my latest, for I wrote “The Dunwich Horror” afterward.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Oct 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill181
By the way—if you want to see a new story which is practically mine, read “The Curse of Yig” in the current W.T. Mrs. Reed is a client for whom Long & I have done oceans of work, & this story is about 75% mine. All I had to work on was a synopsis describing a couple of pioneers in a cabin with a nest of rattlesnakes beneath, the killing of the husband by snakes, the bursting of the corpse, & the madness of the wife, who was an eye-witness to the horror. There was no plot or motivation—no prologue or aftermath to the incident—so that one might say the story, as a story, is wholly my own. I invented the snake-god & the curse, the tragic wielding of the ace by the wife, the matter of the snake-victim’s identity, & the asylum epilogue. Also, I worked up the geographic & other incidental colour—getting some data from the alleged authroress, who knows Oklahoma, but more from books As it stands, the tale isn’t bad according to W.T. standards; though of course it is absurdly mechanical and artificial. I have no regrets at not being the avowed author. I got $20.00 for the job, & Wright paid Mrs. Reed $45.00 for the completed MS.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 6 Oct 1929, Essential Solitude 1.222
Her mind filled with ophidian images, she now falls to the floor & expresses the only thing she knows how to express. She hisses & hisses & hisses… Thus the man has died—in a way—from snakes, as he felt fated he would do. And upon the woman who killed the snakelets has been visited the long-legended curse of the snake-devil. She has been—mentally, at least—’turned into a snake’ (in actual linkage—see preceding) of what she did that bygone day with the musket-butt!
In this plot you will note a completely connected chain of motivation. the denouement has the quality of inevitability, which editors generally seek with much avidity. The pioneer atmosphere sugests some of the tales of Ambrose Bierce, [cf. “The Boarded Window” in “In the Midst of Life”] & I believe the tale out to have a style not unlike the dry, metallic, paragraphs he was so fond of. If you decide to have me do the story this way, you might send back the sheets of this letter containing the plot outline; (IV & V) although I fancy I have most of the essentials either in my head or jotted down on your note pages. It will not be necesary for you to write out any more than the notes—I like plenty of latitude in working up a story—but you might send me some more notes on points of local colour. I seek accuracy & realism above all things […] & even though I may not use any of the colour I get, I want it at the back of my head just the same. […]
Such then, is the case (a) I’ll need the additional notes whatever plan I follow. (b) I’ll write up the anecdote literally for $2.00 per page, total not to exceed $20.00 & (c) I’ll prepare & try to place a story written from the above amended plot for half the proceeds, no advance fee. Let me know at your leisure which plan you prefer to have followed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 13 Feb 1928, Spirit of Revision 107-108
The plan was apparently approved, and Lovecraft commenced research & writing, while carrying on other revision-work. An undated note, possibly 23 Feb 1928, adds:
Your Okla. notes are just what was needed. The Indian tom-tom element is splendid—it will furnish an atmosphere dominating the story. (ibid, 110)
From the above, a rough outline of how the story was conceived, and Zealia’s part in it, can be guessed at. There is no reason to doubt the gist of her account that it began as a pioneer folk tale; her sister was Grace Compton (née Brown), whose mother-in-law would have been the original Grandma Compton. Shorn of the Mythos elements added by Lovecraft, it does sound like a psychological survival story a la Ambrose Bierce or Jack London, with possibly the slightly weird element of some kind of precognition or belief in a fated doom.
While Zealia’s claim of multiple revisions or submissions is not impossible, or even uncharacteristic of working with Lovecraft, the next letter which mentions the story suggests that he turned in a completed manuscript:
Enclosed—as you may see—is the completed snake-tale, which I have decided to call “The Curse of Yig”. The deity in question is entirely a product of my own imaginative theogony—for like Dunsany, I love to invent gods & deivls & kindred marvellous things. However, the Indians certainly had a snake-god; for as everyone knows, the great fabulous teacher & civiliser of the prehistoric Mexican cultures (called Quetzalcoatl by the Incan-Aztec groups & Kukulan by the Mayas) was a feathered serpent. In working up the plot you will notice I have added another “twist”—which I think increases the effectiveness of the impression. […] For geographical atmosphere & colour I had of course to rely wholly on your answers to my questionnaire, plus such printed descriptions of oklahoma as I could find. […]
As for the price—on account of the congeniality of the theme I said I would make a cut rate & promised not to exceed $20.00 typed. By the same arithmetical process the untyped job ought to cost $17.50, at which figure it may be considered to stand. […] Needless to say, the existing rate provides fro as many further changes & re-revisions as you may think desirable inorder to make the story thoroughly convincing & true to its geographical locale.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Zealia Brown Reed, 9 Mar 1928, ibid. 112
Lovecraft makes an error here—the Incans never had an equivalent to Queztalcoatl—and the “twist” appears by inference to be the suggestion that the hissing creature in the prologue and epilogue is not the pioneer woman herself, but what was “born to her three-quarters of a year afterward.” The implicit element of inhuman rape and hybrid children is certainly shuddersome, and may be considered a “dry run” for the theme of cosmic miscegenation in “The Dunwich Horror,” also written in 1928. This is especially the case when readers consider this passage:
Then Hallowe’en drew near, and the settlers planned another frolic—this time, had they but known it, of a lineage older than even agriculture; the dread Witch-Sabbath of the primal pre-Aryans, kept alive through ages in the midnight blackness of secret woods, and still hinting at vague terrors under its latter-day mask of comedy and lightness. Hallowe’en was to fall on a Thursday, and the neighbours agreed to gather for their first revel at the Davis cabin. (The Curse of Yig)
Which borrows from Margaret Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921), and the importance of the pagan festivals in Lavinia Whateley’s conception in “The Dunwich Horror.”
One particular element which rarely is remarked upon is Lovecraft’s attempt at the characterization of Native Americans—which for the most part are an unseen, their drumming (as suggested by Zealia) forming a recurring motif in the Aubrey Davis narrative. Lovecraft had used Native Americans in passing in some of his earlier stories, but they form a more integral part of “The Curse of Yig,” as it is nominally based on a bit of indigenous folklore. This story would introduce the character of Grey Eagle, who would be expanded on with a speaking role in “The Mound,” albeit in very Western dime-novel dialect, a sample of which Lovecraft experiments with here:
Yig was a great god. He was bad medicine. He did not forget things. In the autumn his children were hungry and wild, and Yig was hungry and wild, too. All the tribes made medicine against Yig when the corn harvest came. They gave him some corn, and danced in proper regalia to the sound of whistle, rattle, and drum. They kept the drums pounding to drive Yig away, and called down the aid of Tiráwa, whose children men are, even as the snakes are Yig’s children. It was bad that the squaw of Davis killed the children of Yig. Let Davis say the charms many times when the corn harvest comes. Yig is Yig. Yig is a great god. (The Curse of Yig)
Lovecraft, who had never seen a Wichita and likely dug Tiráwa out of an encyclopedia, was at best getting elements second- or third-hand, and the result leans extremely heavily on stereotypes—and the most that can be said is that none of the Native Americans depicted are in any way malicious or duplicitous, but uniformly benign, albeit always prone to alcoholism in Lovecraft’s depiction.
Audrey Davis is a part of this, as she is “short and rather dark, with a black straightness of hair suggesting a slight Indian admixture.” It is uncommon for Lovecraft to have mixed-raced characters in his stories, and those often depicted negatively; it may be this is a detail from Zealia’s original synopsis. Lovecraft attempted to “get inside the head” of Audrey, to speak from her viewpoint, a very rare thing in his fiction…and the sequence of her in bed, dreading what was to come, is somewhat reminiscent of the earlier piece “Four O’Clock” with Sonia H. Greene.
While the prose of the resulting story is all Lovecraft’s, the conception and ideas are a peculiar mix. It has the nameless protagonist and artificial mythology of a typical Lovecraft story—but nothing else is quite typical; the setting of Oklahoma is far away from his Lovecraft country, and two women feature prominently in the plot, both taken directly from Zealia’s original conception: Audrey Davis, the main subject for the story-within-the-story, and Sally (later Grandma) Compton, who would re-appear in Zealia and Lovecraft’s next collaboration, “The Mound.” Much of the story concerns a kind of naturalistic and psychological horror, with the only overt supernatural element appearing at the very end, the aforementioned “twist” providing a very Lovecraftian climactic revelation as a flourish.
Lovecraft sent the tale to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales (ibid. 118); it was accepted, but would not be published for another year, there is a letter from Lovecraft to Wright dated 24 Sep 1928 asking about when it might be published on Zealia’s behalf. (Lovecraft Annual #8 18) Given that Weird Tales paid on publication rather than acceptance, such long delays could be quite the source of consternation. In the meantime between acceptance and publication, they continued their correspondence, and Lovecraft continued to revise some of her other work. In her memoir, Zealia admitted:
I needed money, and what I aimed to do was write fiction more to m liking. I began to wonder if Lovecraft’s advice were not directing me away from salable fiction. yet I had so far lost confidence in myself, that I hesitated to send out a manuscript without first having him see it.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) in Ave Atque Vale258
“The Curse of Yig” finally saw print in the November 1929 issue of Weird Tales, which hit the newsstands in October. Lovecraft made no secret of his authorship to his friends, though he was careful to maintain the charade in public, advising one young correspondent some years later:
The story was not an immediate hit with the readers, who were more impressed with Robert E. Howard’s Yellow Peril serial “Skull-Face”; but in the March 1930 issue one reader added:
In an earlier issue you had a story (The Curse of Yig) about the curse of some Indian snake-god which very strongly reminds me of an actual occurrence in the district of Helgeland, in the northern part of Norway, three or four decades ago. It was related to me by a woman who had come to the United States from that same district, the daughter of a government official there. The incident shows that at least one of W.T.’s weirdest tales is far from improbable or impossible.
Another curious sequel occurred in the letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, the latter of whom would send Lovecraft a group of rattlesnake rattles for his collection:
By the way—is it a fact that the corpse of a person repeatedly bitten by snakes swells and bursts? A revision client of mine in Kansas City had a plot-germ based on that idea, and I worked up a story from it—”The Curse of Yig”, which you may recall in W.T. It made good fiction, but I have always wondered just how much truth there was in the original notion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 30 Jan 1931, A Means to Freedom1.132
I remember the “Yig” story; it was a good one and I thought at the time that I could detect the touch of your master-hand here and there. I should think it quite likely that a rattler-victim might burst if bitten a great many times.
—Robert E. Howard to E. P. Lovecraft, Feb 1931, A Means to Freedom1.148
Posterity would be kinder to Zealia & Lovecraft’s tale. It was anthologised in the British Not at Night title Switch on the Light (1931), again in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937), and again in the 1960 paperback edition. Farnsworth Wright reprinted it in Weird Tales in Apr 1939 (with more comments in “The Eyrie” than when it first appeared!), and Donald Wollheim in Avon Fantasy Reader #14 (1950), among other places. August Derleth reprinted it in the Arkham House collection Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943), and a decade later it lent its name to The Curse of Yig (1953), the first collection of all the Zealia Bishop-H. P. Lovecraft stories. It is included in the Variorum Edition of Lovecraft’s revisions and collaborations, and can be read for free online.
Aside from reprints, the story formed the introduction of Yig to the Mythos—as picked up by Robert Bloch in “The Mannikin” (Weird Tales Apr 1937)—and with “The Mound,” which Lovecraft ghostwrote for Zealia next, forms a sort of self-contained cycle of its own. Yig would return, along with Grandma Compton and Grey Eagle—and that legacy is due to the inspiration and ideas of Zealia Bishop, as realized by H. P. Lovecraft.
I cannot reveal the details of our shocking expeditions, or catalogue even partly the worst of the trophies adorning the nameless museum we prepared in the great stone house where we jointly dwelt, alone and servantless. Our museum was a blasphemous, unthinkable place, where with the satanic taste of neurotic virtuosi we had assembled an universe of terror and decay to excite our jaded sensibilities.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Hound”
These rooms were where our museum would be set up. At last I came to agree with Lois that only the plundering of graves might cure us of the most stifling ennui we had yet suffered.
—Poppy Z. Brite, “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood”
Lovecraft’s mythos is a true mythology. The stories have become generational, told and retold, embellished and expanded upon, adapted to the syntax of the era. “The Hound” is as decadent a story as Lovecraft ever wrote, and its spawn include “Houndwife” (2010) by Caitlín R. Kiernan and “Some Distant Baying Sound” (2009) by W. H. Pugmire, both of which reiterate the old tale with variations, examining new aspects of the strange relationship that binds the two morbid companions in their darkling quest.
So does Poppy Z. Brite (AKA Billy Martin) in “His Mouth Will Taste Of Wormwood,” except here the tale is rewoven from the bones up. More explicit, more elaborate; not a sequel or prequel or continuation of Lovecraft’s “The Hound” but a reimagining. Putting onto the page all the things that Lovecraft himself never would: blood, sex, necrophilia, bestiality, a touch of actual New Orleans voodoo-lore.
Which, in the hand of someone with less skill, taste, or imagination, could easily have slipped over into edgelord territory. Alan Moore and Jacen Burrows’ Neonomiconis an example where efforts to put on the page what Lovecraft left off are sometimes claimed to have crossed the invisible and wavering line of good taste; to have pushed past “explicit” into “exploitation.” Brite plays a careful balancing act here, more extreme than Lovecraft was, less explicit than Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” series would be.
It isn’t pornography, to put it bluntly. It’s art.
Nor is it an effort to do Lovecraft one better, though readers can judge for themselves which version of the story they prefer. The setting has changed, from Lovecraft’s London to Brite’s New Orleans; from the 1900s to the 1980s. St. John and his nameless narrator companion have been replaced by Louis and Howard, though their roles really haven’t changed that much. Louis/St. John is still the more active and daring of the pair, possessed of the dark vitality and hunger for sensation that drives the plot of the story; Howard is more passive, yin to his yang, submissive (sometimes literally) but also enabling. Like other post-Lovecraft takes on the characters, the homosocial bond between the two becomes explicit (and homosexual or bisexual) in this later incarnation.
If published decade or two earlier, that might have been a problem. Stories with LGBTQ characters that come to a bad end can sometimes be interpreted as moral fables. No such message here need be understood or implied: Louis and Howard aren’t punished because they end up lovers. Being a same-sex couple isn’t the key point here of failure here: it’s being a pair of graverobbers and digging up the wrong sorcerer’s grave.
It’s not a healthy relationship, nor was it ever meant to be. Two people egging each other on to greater and greater depths, pushing until they cross a threshold and invite supernatural retribution. This is the aspect of fable to “The Hound” that is missing from many other stories by Lovecraft, and Brite’s story captures that very well.