In the 1920s and 30s in the United States of America, erotica was technically illegal—groups like the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice worked hand in glove with the police and the government censors of the United States Post Office to crack down on anything that smacked of smut, from James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer (1934) to Tijuana bibles, nudist magazines, or explicit works on birth control.
This did not stop the production or distribution of erotic works, but it drove it largely underground. Ambitious but shady individuals placed ads big and small in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, coding their books as works of medical or anthropological interest to skirt the laws. Pulp magazines with sex interest like Spicy Mystery and its sisters skated a thin line between being permissible or being deemed obscene and taken off newsstands and sometimes crossed it.
It took decades for the legal standards to loosen. Landmark cases like United States v. One Book Called Ulysses, 5 F. Supp. 182 (SDNY 1933) and Grove Press, Inc. v. Christenberry, 175 F. Supp. 488 (SDNY 1959) opened the door for people in the United States to publish and possess such works as Fanny Hill (1748) without fear of the books being seized and burned, and the publishers fined and imprisoned. With the new legalization of erotic literature came availability, as old classics were reprinted openly to meet a curious demand.
The artificial restrictions on publication had helped to create a kind of erotic canon; works like The Golden Assof Apuleius, Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron, Leopold von Sader-Masoch’s Venus in Furs (1870), and the anonymous The Way Of A Man With A Maid(1908) weren’t necessarily the most transgressive or well-written erotic works, but in the grey market of erotic books, certain titles had by dint of age, popularity, or literary quality stood out above the rest and became a part of the culture.
It is this loose canon that many writers continue to call back to. Pluto in Furs (2019) and Pluto in Furs 2(2022), anthologies of weird explicit fiction, is a deliberate reference to Venus in Furs. Peter H. Cannon’s jocular short story “Asceticism and Lust: The Greatest Lovecraft Revision” (1988) imagines a collaboration between Lovecraft and Henry Miller that results in “Tropic of Cthulhu”—a tongue-firmly-in-cheek reference to Miller’s censored novels Tropic of Cancer and Tropic of Capricorn (1939). Lovecraftian erotica, by the way, took a few decades to really get going in no small part because of the legal restrictions outlined above. The freedom to read Ulysses also brought with it the freedom to appreciate all the further extrapolations of sex and the Cthulhu Mythos.
So when a reader picks up the Nookienomicon and leafing through those austere pages reads the title of one story is “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” by Beth W. Patterson, there is a certain expectation that they will get the reference, even if they haven’t read the book. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn or Shakespeare’s plays, a certain amount of cultural osmosis is assumed to have occurred.
The world is supposed to be full of possibilities, but they narrow down to pretty few in most personal experience. There’s lots of good fish in the sea…maybe…but the vast masses seem to be mackerel or herring, and if you’re not mackerel or herring yourself you are likely to find very few good fish in the sea.
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterly’s Lover (1928)
The intention of “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole,” however, is not to be a pornographic episode along the lines of “The Flower of Innsmouth” (2011) by Monique Poirier or an erotic paranormal romance novel like Tide of Desire (1983) by Sheena Clayton. The Nookienomicon promises “Bawdy Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,” and Patterson delivers in a double-entendre-laden comedy that is more sizzle than steak. Working in the tradition of the period works that often had to couch any eroticism in euphemism to get past the censors, this honeymoon in Innsmouth tiptoes the fine line between discussing marital relations—and Innsmouth lore—openly and hinting at it as strongly as possible.
[“]Such is the way of people touched by the Old Ones.”
“Touched by the Old Ones?” Fannly looked delightedly aghast. “In what way? Can you show me on a doll?”
Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon71
To spoof something properly, you have to love it, and there’s a lot of love on display here. Patterson doesn’t just make the obvious jokes (although the stream of sexual innuendos and nautical euphemisms is relentless), and does more than just tease eldritch revelations.
“Is it normal for men to have five of those?”
“Not human men,” replied her husband. “His trousers must fit him like a glove…darling, are you disappointed?”
Beth W. Patterson, “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole” in the Nookienomicon 68
Aficionados of the Cthulhu Mythos will have read any number of escapes, successful or attempted, from Innsmouth that have been published over the decades, but I can fairly guarantee that they haven’t read one quite like “Lady Chatterly’s Blowhole.”
Joanne Lagrasse is a newly graduated college student living the life. Well, if the life is sitting in your apartment all day trying to research monsters for a novel. The strange book her favorite professor gave her is full of ramblings by what must be a mad man, which makes for uneasy reading and a loner lifestyle.
She pushes herself to go out to the beach, though the takes the tome with her. When she decides to not heed her professor’s warning and reads a chant out loud, she finds herself faced with a giant monster and its lewd tentacles, each one eager to fill her holes.
Before the internet, erotic literature often left a literal paper trail. It wasn’t enough to write a story or book, if you wanted to sell it you had to advertise—small ads in appropriate adult newspapers or magazines (or, for erotic fanfiction, fanzines), mail-order catalogs or lists of other publications in the backs of books, and for particularly notable works perhaps even a published review in some suitable medium. By the early 2010s, the game had fundamentally changed: the cheap adult paperbacks of previous decades had largely fallen off with the rise of more readily-available pornography, and self-publishing became feasible thanks to print-on-demand publishing and ebooks. The internet was a great leveler, doing away with much of the traditional advertising—and with it, much of the traditional paper trail which historians and smuthounds alike relied on.
Now, scholars have to rely on search engines and internet archives, hoping for social media posts, blogposts, and the occasional interview:
ED: I see you write tentacle erotica, which has a soft spot in my heart as an anime geek. How did you get into that sub-genre?
DD: I love H. P. Lovecraft! I’ve been a member of 4chan’s /x/ for, well, probably 6 years now. That’s their paranormal board. Horror and tentacles are both very fun to write, especially when you can make them sexy.
Booty Call of Cthulhu by Dalia Daudelin is a good example of the works of the period. Originally released as a Kindle ebook under the nom de plume Roxy Feurouge in 2012 (and as by Mia Lust on Barnes & Noble’s website), then as a thin print-on-demand softcover in 2013 (still available), the story is straightforward and geared toward specific, clearly indicated kinks: monsters, tentacles, dubious consent—and it delivers on all counts.
My jaw went slack. My mouth opened just enough for the tentacle to slide in. It went from a wool texture to something more slimy, a bit like another tongue.
Readers hoping for an erotic re-telling of “The Call of Cthulhu” or a Cthulhu Mythos pastiche with a bit more explicit sex than usual will be sorely disappointed. While not quite Porn Without Plot, most of the twelve print pages are devoted to a detailed array of sexual acts, most involving tentacles. Comparisons with tentacle-themed Japanese adult animation like La Blue Girlfall a bit short: while the sex scenes cover much of the same material (penetrations anal, oral, and vaginal, etc.), there is quite a bit more story and character development in the Japanese manga and its anime adaptation. Booty Call of Cthulhu is written like a typical pornographic feature film, with the brief non-sexual interludes providing the set-up for the next carnal scene, with an abrupt finish after the final climax.
Short, sweet, and to the point—and when compared to similar works of the period like I Was Impregnated by Cthulhu! (2012) by Penny P. Zahn, The Tentacles of the Elder Gods (2012) by Lindsey Purl, Cthulhu’s Carresses(2013) by Amy Morrel, Uhluhtc’s Sacrifice(2013) by Grace Vilmont, I Fucked Cthulhu!(2013) by Deliah Fawkes, Cuckolded by Cthulhu (2013) by Lillian Jacobs, and Cthulhu Comes (2014) by Sandy Laws—Booty Call of Cthulhu isn’t particularly poorly written. If there’s a real criticism to be made, it’s that it is no more than it set out to be, and a much more engaging erotic narrative could have come from the same premise.
What differentiates Booty Call of Cthulhu from most of its contemporaries is that it was either popular enough or sufficiently tickled the imagination to elicit two sequels: Booty Call of Cthulhu 2 and Booty Call of Cthulhu 3 by Wren Winter—and neither of which is currently available (Wren has also written My Night With Cthulhu, which is not either of those two books under a new title).
Whether this is a licensing issue or Amazon removed the ebooks for violating one of their policies is unclear, and probably will remain so…because as with internet fanfiction, the internet’s archive is imperfect and there is no paper trail. Neither 2 or 3 ever received a hardcopy printing, at far as I’ve been able to determine, and unless you were fortunate enough to buy them during the window of opportunity they were available, those texts are essentially impossible to obtain. Should the files be corrupted or Amazon stop supporting them, they may well be lost forever.
Several of Booty Call’s contemporaries, including I Was Impregnated by Cthulhu! and Cuckolded by Cthulhu have already suffered the same fate. It’s not just that these works exist only on a handful of Kindle accounts, but unless you were aware they existed already it is exceedingly difficult to find out they ever existed. Posting an ebook to Amazon and letting the search engine handle discovery for a public apparently starved for sexually explicit Mythos-flavored content was often enough to sell a few copies…and then, for one reason or another, the ebooks were no longer sold, and there might not even be a page to point at to show where it had been for sale.
Given the ephemeral nature of pornography and the quality of the writing, few folks will lament this as a great loss to our shared cultural heritage—most erotica is treated as eminently disposable, to be enjoyed in the moment but not necessarily saved for posterity as with so many other books. Yet works like Booty Call of Cthulhu certainly represent a certain moment in time, and a literary trend which, in its perennial reflowering, means critics and fans of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos need to acknowledge two truths:
Some people want to read about having sex with Cthulhu, and a body of work has grown up to meet that demand.
The question that remains to be seen is how, if at all, these works might be preserved. It is fair to say that Booty Call of Cthulhu was not the first and will not be the last sexually explicit story about an amorous eldritch entity, but it is disturbing how easily such works can effectively fall off the face of the internet, perhaps never to be read again. Because it has a print edition, Booty Call of Cthulhu will probably linger on longer than most—and it is weird to think that in generations to come, a furtive Mythos fan may enter into a dusty bookshop and find among the dross of the 2010s an ancient example of Lovecraftian smut…
I entered, charmed, and from a cobwebbed heap Took up the nearest tome and thumbed it through, Trembling at curious words that seemed to keep Some secret, monstrous if one only knew. Then, looking for some seller old in craft, I could find nothing but a voice that laughed.
In Hammers on Bone (2016) by Cassandra Khaw, an eldritch abomination walks around in a human suit, playing hardboiled private detective John Persons, a monster who works against other monsters, working for its own inscrutable reasons against Lovecraftian incursions. A Song for Quiet is a standalone novella in the same setting, though a continent away and decades prior, with Persons relegated to an ambiguous supporting role as the narrative shifts to focus on rambling bluesman Deacon James.
Any more detail would give away the plot of the story, and it has little to spare.
In terms of theme and content, A Song for Quiet is a distant literary descendent of “The Music of Erich Zann,” the essential theme reworked and woven with considerable skill and imagination into a new context, a cousin to stories like “The Opera Singer” (2015) by Priya J. Sridhar and “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder—in part because music is the language and the medium by which the weirdness from Outside penetrates this reality, but because music doesn’t just happen. You need a figure on the threshold, like Erich Zann, who has the skills to play and faces the choice to do so. That places a very human conflict in the midst of what might otherwise be a very impersonal cosmic struggle. Ultimately, the musician on the threshold has to decide if to play.
Khaw’s choice to center the narrative on one such threshold-character, Deacon James, comes with advantages and drawbacks. The advantage is that Khaw is a skillful writer who really gets into James’ head, and the world seen through his eyes is a part of the world in stories like The Ballad of Black Tom (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff, and Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark—where Black people, even in a relatively unsegregated northern city like Arkham, have to step carefully, watch their words and actions, because any wrong step could mean violence and death. Jim Crow America was an ugly place with its very mundane horrors, without adding any Lovecraftian horrors to the mix.
The downside is, James knows nothing about the Lovecraftian aspect of the setting and doesn’t learn much of anything by the book’s end. Hammers on Bone worked so well in part because John Persons was an insider on the occult world of the Mythos, readers got their point of view and many things could be explained or accepted because of that. A Song for Quiet, seen mostly through the bluesman’s eyes, is like much in life a puzzle for which many pieces are missing and which will never be complete. John Persons in this book is one piece that doesn’t seem to fit (unless the reader has read Hammers on Bone at some point); he appears from nowhere, does things, explains almost nothing, and this is all perfectly in keeping with how the character might appear to James, but it’s as damnably frustrating as a poorly-played non-player character in a session of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, enigmatic to a fault.
Another piece that doesn’t quite fit is Arkham itself. As a setting, Khaw does a tremendous job of expressing the unease a Black man might feel traveling to and being in a relatively unknown northern city; used to the more openly segregated South, Deacon James is only really at ease in Black spaces. Why it features in the story is another question entirely: Arkham is the backdrop, but it could almost as easily have been Boston, New York, or even London. While an American city makes sense, since blues music is an African-American creation, by the 1940s the geographic remit of blues music and players had gone global. There’s nothing special about Arkham in this regard—it is the place name to cement a Lovecraftian connection, but Deacon James isn’t playing to an audience of hip Miskatonic University students or anything like that. So the setting feels a bit superfluous; like a film that drops a few Lovecraftian place names but doesn’t really connect to Lovecraft’s stories about those places.
This isn’t a damning criticism: many stories have only peripheral connections to the wider Mythos, and that’s fine. The first and most important thing is whether or not the story is good, the amount of Mythos lore dropped is not a primary measure of story quality. The lament here is that it could have been better. Khaw’s take on Arkham through James’ POV is intriguing, it’s something that the novella could have used more of, and if that setting had tied more strongly into the plot it would have been smashing…or perhaps it would have turned a tightly written and fast-paced novella into a bloated short novel.
There is a lot to like about this story; Khaw’s prose is alternately poetic and grounded, using music metaphors to give shape and texture to things seen and unseen, and the characters are well-defined. As another episode of the Persona Non Grata series, it expands the world of Hammers on Bone without stepping on any toes, far enough away in time and space so that the two stories can work independently, but taken together suggesting a wider, more complex world. Thematically, the ending is a strong focus on the human conflict of the musician on the threshold, but the missing pieces of the puzzle leave a bit of tension, like a chord that refuses to resolve.
There are no rules for the Mythos, but there are traditions. H. P. Lovecraft’s original works blazed a trail that many have tread, sometimes following in his footsteps, sometimes eschewing the increasingly well-beaten paths to branch off in their own directions. The route maps for these weird trails are written down in bibliographies, indices, and concordances…but there are too many. No one source can map them all, and even those dryly noted road markers can only point a reader in the right direction.
It is still up to individual readers to hunt down the sources if they want to follow some of these off-trails. There are little-tread and oft-overlooked byways, paths in danger of being forgotten and lost in the weeds. Works that never see reprinting, and aren’t likely to. Some day, the last copy of a magazine will fall apart, and some small part of the Mythos will be lost forever.
II. The Reading
I lifted the heavy tome
and placed it on the table before the window
moonlinght shining in upon the book’s dark surface.
The Internet Speculative Fiction Database entry for Erin Donahoe shows she was most active in the early 2000s; the page contains a link to the web archive of her long-defunct SFF.net profile, and links from there go to her long-defunct personal blog and a more extensive bibliography. Magazine publications, online publications, and involvements with various small publications. “The Old Ones Reborn,” published in 2007, is the latest work of hers listed. It may well have been her last work published.
More digging would probably find out more about Erin Donahoe, but the point is not to engage in digital stalking or necromancy, it is to illustrate a point: not all creators are in it for the long haul, not every literary or artistic path goes very far. For every writer, poet, artist, and fan-publisher who devotes their life to creation, there are many others whose careers cover only a handful of years when time and enthusiasm allow such efforts. Then other priorities shift to the fore: careers, relationships, kids and parents and pets to take care of, health issues, money issues, etc.
III. The Dream
My explanation at the time was
That it was some kind of hypnosis, that I was sleepwalking.
“The Old Ones Reborn” is a narrative poem in free verse, perhaps inspired by Lovecraft’s “Fungi from Yuggoth” sonnet cycle, and starting in a very similar manner—perhaps as homage—but Donahoe follows tradition only so far. She took it in a different direction, more stylistically similar to Caitlín R. Kiernan than Lovecraft or Derleth. More about the experience of being in that situation, that first encounter with the Mythos, the violation of that threshold, and what happened next.
Donahoe does not need to use the names Arkham, Dunwich, or Innsmouth to invoke something of them; does not need to name the Deep Ones, Cthulhu, or Yog-Sothoth to suggest their presence. The poem is more effective for its restraint; for suggesting connections instead of making them concrete. Making the reader draw their own conjectures, based on the paths they have walked.
“The Old Ones Reborn” was published in H. P. Lovecraft’s Magazine of Horror Spring-Summer 2007. It has not been reprinted, or collected. All the copies of it may well be contained in that print run, and when the grey, soft paper rots and molds…it may be lost. There are no ebooks, as yet, and may never be. Few libraries have copies. What efforts are being made to preserve it are collectors, and the people who sell to collectors. With luck, perhaps it will outlast living memory for a couple generations.
Other works are not so fortunate. Some are lost; others simply…obscure. Poems and stories that are not republished are generally not read, and that is another kind of death. Forgotten paths, some going nowhere, others leading into new dark places…and who is to say which is which? Should works like “The Fluff at the Threshold” (1996) by Simon Leo Barber or “Two Fungi From Yuggoth” (1977) by Alice Briley be lost forever to obscurity? It is always a thought, in retreading these rare paths, to think of what feet may yet follow, and what they will make of it.
Thus I am coming to be convinced that the erotic instinct is in the majority of mankind far stronger than I could ever imagine without wide reading & observation; that it relentlessly clutches the average person—even of the thinking classes—to a degree which makes its overthrow by higher interests impossible.
This is not unfamiliar territory for Jason Wayne Allen, whose other Mythos works include the Deep One erotic novella Ichthyic in the Afterglow (2015) and “The Horror at the Garrsmouth Orgy” in Strange Versus Lovecraft(2013). Drawing on both the surrealistic atmosphere of bizarro fiction and the rhetoric of gonzo pornography, Allen has crafted a nymphomaniac heroine who is utterly unfazed as one eldritch horror after another crawls out of—and into—her orifices.
Readers might be shocked and appalled at a character who embodies the sex-crazed vapid bimbo or nymphette, may be affronted by Allen’s mockery of the Mythos, even disgusted by crude language and scenes like this:
My legs in the stirrups, I watch the doctor’s head move between my knees. I wonder if the doctor likes the hair I keep down there, that orange patch matching the carpet to my fiery drapes. My hips slowly rise as I feel his latex fingers part my pussy lips. I come hard in the doctor’s chiseled face, and out with my juices comes the shoggoth.
Dr. Wadsworth is a skid mark on the floor of his examination room.
Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 7-8
Shocked, appalled, disgusted—and, hopefully, still turning the pages—is the point. A shoggoth emerging during a nonstandard vaginal exam and squishing the attending physician is played for erotic slapstick, not horror. The whole point of the exercise is to push the limits a little, to pile silly on silly, affront on affront, to say to hell with conventions and expectations and keep transgressing further and further…because it’s a fun ride. Disturbing in parts, borderline obscene in others, but that’s rather the point. If you’re not going push the limits of what the audience finds acceptable, the ne plus ultra, then why write a transgressive erotic Lovecraftian novella anyway?
There is one scene that tip-toes on the very borders of obscenity, if it doesn’t cross directly over it. It involves the mortal remains of Dr. Wadsworth, the gynecologist who was splattered by the shoggoth, reassembled with an aborted fetus and reanimated so that the Frankenstein’s Monster can give Beatrixxx one more going-over before the serum wears off. I’m not sure that one would pass the Miller Test.
In a sense, Shoggoth Butt Invasion is Mythos-as-exploitation. The erotic possibilities of Lovecraft’s Mythos may be theoretically infinite, but in practice most “Lovecraftian” erotica follows familiar beats. It’s a rare work that seeks to be as transgressive, weird, and offensive as most readers and critics imagine Lovecraftian erotica should be. Allen is more dedicated to explicitly Mythos erotica than Cthulhu Scat Hangover & The Innsmouth Porno VHS (2014) by Adolf Lovecraft, but doesn’t have the dedication to characterization, setting, and plot that are the hallmarks of Edward Lee’s “Hardcore Lovecraft” novels such as Trolley No. 1852 and The Dunwich Romance.
Cthulhu lets go another shriek. THis one warbles into almost a human moan.
“Fuck yeah! Iä! Iä Fhtagn that pussy, baby!
Jason Wayne Allen, Shoggoth Butt Invasion 42
Future generations will probably never read Shoggoth Butt Invasion. Released as an ebook via AmazonKindle and a slim print-on-demand paperback from CreateSpace, the book is no longer available for sale in either format. New Kink Books, the publisher, appears to be defunct. For all that POD publishing and digital publishing have opened up the marketplace to thousands of new titles for readers, it is a very fast-paced and fragile reading ecosystem. Books that don’t sell fall off the backlist as publishers crash or content managers find offense with them, and there are vanishingly few to filter down into the secondary market of used books. Libraries ignore them.
Sometime in the future, perhaps, if a cult following develops the few surviving copies might become collector’s items—or the files might crop up on some sharing site, helping to circulate those networks and hard drives too eventually crap out. Now, more than ever, books that are not read and appreciated in their time are likely destined to be forgotten utterly.
Does it matter? Is Shoggoth Butt Invasion worth preserving?
Who hath desired the Sea—the sight of salt-water unbounded? The heave and the halt and the hurl and the crash of the comber wind-hounded? The sleek-barrelled swell before storm—grey, foamless, enormous, and growing? Stark calm on the lap of the Line—or the crazy-eyed hurricane blowing? His Sea in no showing the same—his Sea and the same ’neath all showing— His Sea that his being fulfils? So and no otherwise—so and no otherwise Hill-men desire their Hills!
Rudyard Kipling, “The Sea and the Hills” fromKim(1900)
There are weird things out in the water. We still thrill to every strange creature that washes ashore, or is dredged up from the depths by a storm; the exotic, almost alien lifeforms that we glimpse through submarines or haul up in nets. The great depths of the ocean remain unexplored territory where wonders and terrors may yet reside: shipwrecks, volcanoes, lost cities. Nautical tales often contain elements of mystery, survival, adventure, and horror…and have left their mark on science fiction and fantasy. Krakens, Cthulhu, and Godzilla are all part of the lore and mystery of the ocean; sailors were the first great explorers who have lent their terminology to starships and space marines.
Yet for all the weird inspiration that the seas and oceans of the world have lent to H. P. Lovecraft and other weird writers, actual nautical weird fiction is a distinct and often overlooked subgenre. William Hope Hodgson, who was himself a sailor, was no doubt the greatest master of the weird nautical tale with his Sargasso Sea stories, “The Island of the Ud” (1907), and the unforgettable “The Voice in the Night” (1907), which inspired the Japanese film Matango(マタンゴ, 1963). H. P. Lovecraft would dabble in the genre with “Dagon” and the final chapter in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Frank Belknap Long, Jr. would contribute “The Ocean-Leech” in Weird Tales.
Nautical fiction has not gone extinct, but like railroad fiction and zeppelin stories, cultural and technological shifts have made such tales less common than before. Fewer people travel by water over long distances, with motors and electronics making it easier for ships to travel and stay in communication. Many of the tropes of nautical fiction are readily adapted to space travel stories—Event Horizon(1997) is essentially a ghost ship story set in space—and vice versa, as shown by films like The Abyss(1989) and Underwater (2020), so it might be more accurate to say that nautical fiction is undergoing an evolution as it finds its place in a changing culture.
Sometimes evolution tries something weird.
As the title might indicate, I was informed by a fellow author that every series absolutely must stay within a well-defined genre. Being a contrarian, I promptly set out to write a series in which each subsequent story is set with the same characters in a wildly different genre. I would love to hear your thoughts as I write this series as to which genres I should tackle next. Space Opera? Cozy Mystery? Amish Romance? The fun of me posting series as I write them is that it provides you, the reader, with an opportunity to shape and guide the results!
“Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” by Lisa Shea is Book 4 in an ongoing series about Samantha, a Black bisexual woman with a Mythos artifact and dire premonitions of Cthulhu’s emergence, and her friend-and-romantic-interest Gabriel. Strictly speaking, it might be better to regard these as chapters in a serial: while each attempts a distinct genre (1 – Horror, 2 – Mystery, 3 – Science Fiction, 4 – Sea Stories, and 5 – Romance), none of them is quite a standalone story in itself. Nor does the narrative seem complete; presumably more books are forthcoming at some point to carry Samantha and Gabriel’s story onwards, hopefully to some kind of conclusion.
Lisa Shea is a prolific author who is game for anything, and the decision to specifically try and do a nautical story with the Cthulhu Mythos has a lot of potential. While “Cthulhu,” “Dagon,” or “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might seem the obvious candidates for maritime adventures, one could just as easily imagine a sailor of any time period coming across a ghost ship crewed by Mi-Go brain canisters, or an Antarctic cruise ship that hits a frozen shoggoth. Sailing has such a rich and fascinating history, has been such a constant in human life even to the present day, that a story could be set almost anywhere or anytime.
Shea was slightly constrained in that she was keeping the same characters and continuing an overall narrative; “Sailing Downwind to the Cthulhu Call” starts out with them aboard ship, has a bit of light-hearted fun with nautical terminology, and tries to stay on topic…which is kind of where it begins to fall apart.
“I suppose, if I’m going to be reciting lines from doomed naval incidents, the Titanic shouldn’t be my first choice. Seems only two men of color were even on the ship, out of its 2,224 passengers.”
How many people can recite the exact number of passengers on the Titanic off the top of their heads in casual banter? Keeping in mind that at no point in the proceeding does this character demonstrate that she is a Titanic fanatic. The point is driven home in the next paragraph when she begins to go into the details of the Port Chicago disaster, without any real prompting. It is not that this is information she couldn’t know, or have looked up at some point, but for a character that doesn’t know port from starboard it feels very out of character, and almost like the kind of filler used to fluff out historical romance novels for which page count is more important than pacing.
The point of bringing up the Port Chicago disaster specifically appears to be to prompt a discussion between Samantha and Gabriel on the issue of historical racism and the historical racial diversity of sailing crews, e.g.:
“When I was a boy, our neighbor was African-American. Elderly. Wrinkledlike a raisin. He’d served on the U.S.S. Mason in World War II. It said out of Boston, you know. The entire crew was African-Ameircan. At the time, our Navy wouldn’t mix those types with the white sailors.”
His brow furrowed. “Can you imagine, caring about something like that while the Nazis were slaughtering Jewish people by the trian-car-load?”
If this was a single bit of conversation in a longer novel, it might stand out less. Perhaps it might even help establish elements of their characters better and explain their romantic rapport since they both appear to be WWII naval buffs. However, the interaction doesn’t really drive the plot of the chapter or the story forward at all. It’s fascinating as trivia and in another context it might provide an interesting line of inquiry—how did changing racial politics affect the dynamics of sailing ships?—but in this story, the question has to be asked: what is the point? Because neither the Titanic, the Port Chicago disaster, or the U.S.S. Mason figure into Samantha and Gabriel’s little sailing cruise to Nantucket Island.
“Sailing Downwind” is technically a sea story because it takes place at sea, on a small sailboat, and most of the content is explicitly related to sailing in some fashion—even the discussion about why rum and why alcohol is measured in proof, which makes me wish Shea had consulted And a Bottle of Rum: A History of the New World in Ten Cocktailsby Wayne Curtis. Yet it feels like a missed opportunity. The sailing is a little too smooth. Samantha never really learns anything about how to help out around the ship in her brief time on it. Long car trips have been planned with more care and contained more incident and excitement. For a single chapter in a longer novel, this wouldn’t be a complaint, but in a chapter trying to bill itself as nautical fiction, it just feels like so much more could have been done with the idea…a storm. Rough waves. Shark attack. Man overboard. Lost at sea. Sneaky Deep One stealing the rum. St. Elmo’s fire. Pirates (off Nantucket? Perhaps not.)
The Cthulhu Mythos material is a continuation of the story from previous books. Readers who skipped those can get the gist of the idea rather quickly; Samantha has a crystal, a piece of alien technology which is somewhere between a palantir and a browser for extraterrestrial webcams, and it’s safer to use it far away from land just in case Cthulhu decides to make a guest appearance.
I murmured, “The Chinese government would love to get their hands on this. It seems the cameras are simply orbs of energy. There’s one currently by a mountain range. I remember it from last time. I can even see how the clouds driftingby get caught in its peaks and drag a bit. It’s quite lovely.”
The Mythos material is slight. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself, Lovecraftian mood and ideas are more important than quotes from the Necronomicon and eldritch entities with tongue-twisting names. Unfortunately, there isn’t much of that mood either. In trying to make this a “sea story,” “Sailing Downwind” gives short shrift to also being a Mythos story. On paper, there’s no reason why it can’t be both—the nominal reason for the cruise is grounded in using the Mythos device, the Mythos device is used, and Gabriel uses sailing lore to try and interpret some of the information retrieved—and maybe it would have worked, if there was more story there.
If the essential goal of “Sailing Downwind” was to write a work of nautical fiction that mentions Cthulhu in ~25 pages, then it technically fulfills that goal…but only technically. There are some real missed opportunities here, as far as what could have been done with the same characters and the same premise with the same word count. Shea could have made this much more dramatic, much more focused on the sailing experience, emphasized the nautical horrors of the Mythos…but, Shea misses the boat. The overall impression is less of a sea story or a Mythos story, but a bridging chapter between the science fiction chapter (#3) and the sweet romance chapter (#5).
But more wonderful than the lore of old men and the lore of books is the secret lore of ocean. Blue, green, grey, white, or black; smooth, ruffled, or mountainous; that ocean is not silent.
It began with what has been called Cancel Culture, I suppose. Without much warning, I was subjected to a number of public accusations by various women of my alleged misdeeds. These accusations were largely unsubstantiated and were simply the public revenge of various disgruntled and jilted former lovers and employees.
But the resulting furor was considerable. I was dropped by my long-time publisher, in a very public manner. My book sales, which had been very considerable (and some quite lucrative movie development deals) quickly began to evaporate. […]
I spent a small fortune on lawyers. It was not successful. And in the court of public opinion, I was tried and convicted in short order. And so, it was in the depths of despair that I somehow found a most unusual, a most intriguing, website for someone or something called “The Repairer of Reputation”.
“The Repairer of Reputations” is the first, weirdest, and arguably most important tale in Robert W. Chamber’s 1895 collection The King in Yellow. It is also the hardest to actually follow up: Chambers had set the scene thirty years in his future, in the manner of future war stories like H. G. Wells’ “The Land Ironclads” (1903). The narrator is unreliable, as is Mr. Wilde, the eponymous Repairer of Reputations, which adds to the mystery and disquiet of the story—how much of this is true, and how much is madness?
Political partisans can be relieved that this book is not about cancel culture, either for or against. The social ostracism is the catalyst for the events of the story, and Woods never goes into vast detail about how true the allegations are or whether the outrage is justified or not. This is, as the story suggests, a transgender tale: the way that the protagonist’s reputation is repaired involves becoming someone else.
Impossibly, my transformation was complete. This was monstrously alarming, of course, but Tanya assured me that this need not be a permanent change. For my own personal reasons, this felt deeply ironic to me. At the same time, deeply erotic.
Since my adolescence, I had been obsessed with the idea of a male being transformed into a female. And since my teens, I had compulsion to periodically dress in the clothes of a female. This has been my most closely guarded secret, of course. But it may help explain what happened next.
Fantasy gender-bending stories are nothing new. H. P. Lovecraft had body-swapping in “The Thing on the Doorstep,” Bergier used Mythos magic in “Celui qui suscitait l’effroi…” (1958), John Blackburn had a surgical solution in Dagger of Blood (1997), and so on. The method varied, but the result was often the same: a gender transition that was often swift and total. The reality of transition is much longer, messier, and more difficult, involving various degrees of psychiatric evaluation and therapy, hormone treatments, and possibly surgery—and accompanied by legal and bureaucratic hurdles, healing times, side effects from medication, and social ostracism.
Transgender fantasies cut past many of the real-life difficulties to focus on the drama—and sometimes wonder—of the transformation itself, and in many ways are probably closer to transformation erotica than to any desire to live vicariously through someone else’s transition. In this respect, many such “gender bender” tales are closer to a fetishization of the idea of gender transition, titillating readers with the taboo of crossing that imaginary definitive line between male and female, rather than any effort to create an authentic transgender character.
Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale is not King in Yellow erotica in the usual sense, however. There are a few scattered erotic scenes in the book, but those hoping for a version of the King in Yellow to appear with a three-foot penis will be sadly disappointed. Fantasy transition tales like this one have a body of tropes of their own, involving how willing the participant is, how they come to accept or reject their new gender, etc.; if the physical transition is swift, the mental transition and acceptance of new gender—and often new sexuality—takes longer, and Diane Woods plays with some of the familiar tropes, but shies away from going into lengthy and explicit sex scenes as the protagonist, now a woman, has to find out if she is a lesbian or bisexual.
While the premise of the story is focused on the repairing of the protagonist’s reputation, and the gender transition is a part of that, the plot gets a little messier. Rather than keep strictly to the Yellow Mythos, Wood brings in elements of the Cthulhu Mythos including Randi Carter (a transitioned Randolph Carter) and Nyarlathotep; the relatively magical physical gender transition is accompanied by a science fiction hypnosis/brainwashing device that facilitates the mental transition and sets up a somewhat Twilight Zone-esque ending. It is far more Mythos material than is strictly necessary for the plot, and gives the story a bit of a fanfiction feel which it didn’t need to accomplish some of the plot twists—but some of the twists themselves aren’t bad.
It is important to note that Devil’s Due does not tackle a difficult subject via the medium of the Mythos in the manner of “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper & “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka; that is, Woods is not using the story to address any social theme or element in Chambers or Lovecraft’s fiction, or any such theme or element in their personal prejudices. Devil’s Due is a transformation story that uses the Mythos for inspiration and aesthetics, but there’s not any deeper message about how Lovecraft felt about gender or how Chambers depicted gender in his stories.
Which is fair: not every latter-day Mythos story has to be a commentary on what has gone before. Devil’s Due is a competently-written fantasy transformation story; the riff off of “The Repairer of Reputations” helps it stand out from the dozens of other titles involving gender transformation on the Amazon ebook stocklist, and that is no doubt the point. If anything, it perhaps reads a bit closer to some of the older, less sexually explicit transvestite and transgender stories edited by Sandy Thomas.
Devil’s Due: A Transgender Tale (2021) by Diane Woods is available on Amazon Kindle, it was briefly available as a paperback.
Lavinia was one who would be apt to mutter such things, for she was a lone creature given to wandering amidst thunderstorms in the hills and trying to read the great odorous books which her father had inherited through two centuries of Whateleys, and which were fast falling to pieces with age and worm-holes. She had never been to school, but was filled with disjointed scraps of ancient lore that Old Whateley had taught her. The remote farmhouse had always been feared because of Old Whateley’s reputation for black magic, and the unexplained death by violence of Mrs. Whateley when Lavinia was twelve years old had not helped to make the place popular. Isolated among strange influences, Lavinia was fond of wild and grandiose day-dreams and singular occupations; nor was her leisure much taken up by household cares in a home from which all standards of order and cleanliness had long since disappeared.
There is a small cycle of stories involving Lavinia Whateley, spinning out from “The Dunwich Horror.” W. H. Pugmire & Robert M. Price suggested her survival in “The Tree House” in The Dunwich Cycle; Alex Picchetti went into explicit detail about her conception of the twins in “When The Stars Come” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica; Edward Lee was no less explicit in describing Lavinia’s relationship with her sons in The Dunwich Romance.
Yet these stories are all more or less unsympathetic—perhaps not surprising as they were all written by men, and accept that Lavinia was a more or less willing participant in the events leading up to the Dunwich Horror; a cultist who finally grew afraid of her children and quietly disappeared off the page when her part in the story was over. Few of them focus on what it was like to be Lavinia Whateley. Albinos don’t have it easy in life, even when they’re not uneducated and living in rural poverty under the will of a demented wizard intent on using her as a broodmare for a pair of cosmic horror antichrists. There is little of the realism of that hard life in their characterizations. As Smith puts it:
Also, as a fellow disabled New England woman living in poverty, I felt there was something beyond affinity forming between my eyes and the words on the page. I wanted to hear her, imagine her as more fully-formed than Lovecraft had made her.
Lovecraft’s model of Lavinia Whateley was Mary from Arthur Machen’s “The Great God Pan”—a young woman raised to be the subject of an experiment by an older, learned man, who gives birth to an enfant terrible, inhuman in aspect. Mary is barely there in Machen’s story, and Lovecraft gave her both more background and characterization—but not very positive characterization, and even the description of Lavinia is unflattering. Lavinia was “a somewhat deformed, unattractive albino woman of thirty-five,” a “slatternly, crinkly-haired albino,” with “misproportioned arms” and the Whateley chinlessness.
Some of Lovecraft’s descriptions are particular: why the misproportioned arms? Why an albino? Why crinkly hair? Readers and writers might gloss some of these: making Lavinia an albino helped to heighten the contrast with her “black brat,” Wilbur Whateley; crinkly hair can be a sign of dryness, suggesting she doesn’t wash it, which would go along with the idea that Lavinia was “slatternly” or unkempt, dirty, a common characteristic of poor whites in Lovecraft’s fiction. Yet Farah Rose Smith looked at these pieces of the puzzle and went a different way…
Ma was born in the back of a show wagon to a dyin’ hottentot (that’s what Barnum called ’em, she said, but said she’d slap me cross the cheeks top and bottom if I ever said it myself) and “New England’s tallest Negro.” When she was a little gilr, they told her to get out when she could, or else Barnum’d put her on display like them and even take out her body parts fer exhibition after she was dead.
This puts, to pun a phrase, an entirely different complexion on the matter. Lovecraft gives no attention to Lavinia Whateley’s maternal line except to say that Mrs. Whateley died violently when the girl was twelve years old. He has nothing to say about Wilbur Whateley’s maternal grandparents. Human zoos and human oddities were real—and often very exploitative—enterprises in the late 19th and early 20th century, as famously depicted in the 1932 pre-Code horror film Freaks. Making Lavinia mixed-race highlights a heritage of discrimination…and a life she didn’t want for her sons.
Like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Lavinia Rising is an alternate point of view for “The Dunwich Horror,” but largely follows the plot of Lovecraft’s story. This changes the story from a horror to a tragedy; readers know what is going to happen, more or less, and the difference is that we get Lavinia’s point of view as she grows up, dealing with her illnesses and disabilities, the discrimination and misogyny of a rural New England town and a patriarchal household ruled by a twisted madman that sees her as no more than a means to an end. There is little happiness in that life, and we know how it is going to end.
Yet what Farah Rose Smith offers readers is one thing more: what happens after the end. A brief epilogue to “The Dunwich Horror” which focuses on her actions to understand what happened to her children, as opposed to what happened to Mamie Bishop or Wilbur Whateley. The domestic drama and very human grief may be completely counter to Lovecraft’s idea of cosmic horror…but that is rather the point. Lovecraft did enough damage to Lavinia’s reputation; it’s time to hear her own story in her own words, and her point of view makes her an outsider in her own family of outsiders.
The only book really comparable to Lavinia Rising in the corpus of weird fiction is Helen’s Story (2013) by Rosanne Rabinowitz—and while the stories are very different in how they turn out, there is a similarity in that both of these works revisit women in weird fiction who have been ill-served by the rather patriarchial attitudes of the late 19th and early 20th century. Both Machen and Lovecraft were fully capable of writing fiction from the point of view of women, and capable too of imagining them as sympathetic and intelligent beings—Machen’s “The White People” and “The Man of Stone” (1932) by Hazel Heald & H. P. Lovecraft showcase that, at least a little—but they rarely did so. In focusing on their supernatural horrors, Lovecraft and Machen largely overlook or choose not to detail the domestic horrors and psychological horrors of those women’s lives, except by inference…or, in the case of Lavinia, a single desperate conversation:
Through all the years Wilbur had treated his half-deformed albino mother with a growing contempt, finally forbidding her to go to the hills with him on May-Eve and Hallowmass; and in 1926 the poor creature complained to Mamie Bishop of being afraid of him.
“They’s more abaout him as I knows than I kin tell ye, Mamie,” she said, “an’ naowadays they’s more nor what I know myself. I vaow afur Gawd, I dun’t know what he wants nor what he’s a-tryin’ to dew.”
Smith retains Lovecraft’s dialogue verbatim, but expands on the scene and the thoughts and events behind them. Like Rabinowitz, the main point of departure is the part of the story where the woman died or disappeared—and their survival marks the transition from the familiar to the unfamiliar. This is all about the parts of the story the reader never got to read about…and, it has to be said, Smith does it well. It is a compelling story, and if there are a few inconsistencies here and there, those might as easily be chalked up to an unreliable narrator and unreliable transcription as error.
Plus, we get to learn the name of Wilbur’s brother.
They had done the same thing on other planets; having manufactured not only necessary foods, but certain multicellular protoplasmic masses capable of moulding their tissues into all sorts of temporary organs under hypnotic influence and thereby forming ideal slaves to perform the heavy work of the community. These viscous masses were without doubt what Abdul Alhazred whispered about as the “shoggoths” in his frightful Necronomicon, though even that mad Arab had not hinted that any existed on earth except in the dreams of those who had chewed a certain alkaloidal herb.
Slavery was a part of Lovecraft’s heritage. While his immediate family never owned any slaves or showed any inclination to, the oldest of his aunts could remember the American Civil War and emancipation; Lovecraft himself was well aware of the part slavery had played in his own native Rhode Island, and liked to remind correspondents that his ancestor Robert Hazard had left 133 slaves in his will.
When Lovecraft wrote his alien entities, the two most detailed civilizations—the Old Ones in Antarctica in At the Mountains of Madness and the people of K’n-yan in The Mound—they were both defined by slave ownership. Why isn’t exactly clear; the exact forms of slavery involved were both like and unlike the chattel slavery of the American system or the slavery practiced by civilizations like the Romans in antiquity. There was no way for slaves in Lovecraft’s stories to earn freedom, and in fact much of the economics and social ramifications of slavery are unexamined…except for one: as in the antebellum South, the Old Ones and K’n-yans lived in the shadow of a slave revolt.
Victor LaValle’s “Up from Slavery” is a riff on an uncommon theme; a companion piece in many ways to “Shoggoths in Bloom” (2008) by Elizabeth Bear. In both stories, the experience of Black people in America, who deal every day with the legacy of slavery, draws parallels with the plight of the shoggoths.
“You were born to serve,” he said. “It’s genetic.”
In many ways, the slavery of the shoggoths is closer to that of replicants in Blade Runner than to what is described in the first chapter of Booker T. Washington’s Up from Slavery(1901)—but the overall morality is identical. Whether a sentient being is kidnapped and forced into service, or grown in a lab and made to serve, the end result is the same. Because of this, slavery narratives work for shoggoth characters. No one has written Uncle Tekeli-Li’s Cabin yet, and maybe never will, but there is real empathy for shoggoth characters who run away from slavery, or fight back to avoid being returned to a state of slavery.
That is important because in a lot of ways the protagonist Simon Dust is unlikable. He carries a big chip on his shoulder, and not without reason. The world through his eyes is stacked against him because of his race. It colors his interaction with others, and his response to little things…people not sitting next to him on the train, muted anger at discovering he has a father after 29 years as an orphan who grew up in foster care, the white neighbor’s disbelief when he shows up. It is familiar territory; LaValle explored the Black experience in his novella “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) as well, and he is excellent at presenting an individual who has labored all their life under a sword of Damocles, and has to deal with a thousand little microaggressions every day or face the consequences.
It is weird to think that Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) and H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) were contemporaries…but their lives did overlap, even if they did not intersect. LaValle’s use of Washington’s autobiography helps ground Dust’s experience, and that of the shoggoths. Up from slavery shows that being born into slavery may only be the first chapter of someone’s life, even if the experiences and scars of that first chapter stay with them. Likewise, we may say that though Lovecraft may have written slavery into his Mythos, that too is only the first chapter in the saga of the shoggoths, and there is much more that may be written.
While men are thinking of the planets, other worlds may be thinking of us. At least the curious phenomena of that old New England house suggested that possibility… An unforgettable new story of uneathly wonder by two masters of the science-fiction terror tale.
Epigraph to “The Murky Glass” in Saturn: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1957
August Derleth was one of the original creators of what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. His contributions started while Lovecraft was alive with “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932) and “The Thing That Walked on the Wind” (1933). After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937 and the creation of Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s work, August Derleth would continue to write a number of tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in the Lovecraftian vein. These were not written immediately with an eye toward filling out the Lovecraft collections or even his own anthologies, but for sale to magazines, mostly Weird Tales, and published over a series of years. The stories can be divided into three groups:
Older stories written with Mark Schorer that were not published until later (“Spawn of the Maelstrom” (1939) and “The Evil Ones” (1940, later reprinted as “The Horror from the Depths”).
Pulpy horror tales (“The Return of Hastur” (1939), “Passing of Eric Holm” (1939), “The Sandwin Compact” (1940), “Ithaqua” (1941), “Beyond the Threshold” (1941), “The Dweller in Darkness” (1944), “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Whippoorwill in the Hills” (1948), “The House in the Valley” (1953), “The Seal of R’lyeh” (1957, also as “The Seal of the Damned”), and the Trail of Cthulhu series (“The Trail of Cthulhu” (1944, also as “The House on Curwen Street”), “The Watcher from the Sky” (1945), “The Testament of Clairmont Boyd” (1949, also as “The Gorge Beyond Salapunco”), “The Keeper of the Key” (1951), and “The Black Island” (1952)).
“Posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft: The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), “The Survivor” (1954), “Wentworth’s Day” (1957), “The Peabody Heritage” (1957), “The Gable Window” (1957, also as “The Murky Glass”), “The Ancestor” (1957), “The Shadow Out of Space” (1957), “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1957), “The Shuttered Room” (1959), “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” (1959), “Witches’ Hollow” (1962), “The Shadow in the Attic” (1964), “The Dark Brotherhood” (1966), “The Horror from the Middle Span” (1967), “Innsmouth Clay” (1971), and “The Watchers Out of Time” (1974); and Robert E. Howard: “The House in the Oaks” (1971).
The individual merit of these stories varies considerably, but it should be apparent that taken together they represent a substantial body of “Lovecraftian” fiction: 34 short stories, novelettes, and a novel—and Lovecraft’s own published fiction only amounts to 65 stories (plus ~33 revisions and collaborations like “Four O’Clock” (1949), “The Curse of Yig” (1929),“The Night Ocean” (1936), etc.)…and Derleth had, as well as his fictional input to the Mythos, a strong editorial influence on how Lovecraft’s fiction was interpreted, through his introductions to various anthologies and collections of Lovecraft’s work, analyses of his fiction, press releases etc. This is why after Derleth’s death in 1971 there was pushback from fans like Richard L. Tierney in “The Derleth Mythos”—and lent impetus to a Lovecraft purest movement in publishing and scholarship.
Much of the animus against Derleth is centered on his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft. To better understand the reasoning behind these, it is important to understand what Derleth publicly claimed and presented these stories as:
Not for twelve years has the byline of the late, great Howard Phillips Lovecraft appeared on any new work–and it appears now only because, among the papers of the late R. H. Barlow are found Lovecraft’s notes and/or beginnings for the seven stories which go to make up this collection–all now completed by August Derleth, just as he completed Lovecraft’s unfinished novel, The Lurker at the Threshold.
Here are seven tales–two novelettes and five shorter stories–which belong to virtually every period of Lovecraft’s work–from the early fantasies (The Lamp of Alhazred), through the New England pieces (Wentworth’s Day and The Peabody Heritage) to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Gable Window, The Shadow out of Space, The Survivor). Taken together, these seven stories are a nostalgic backward look to the macabre world in which H. P. Lovecraft was supreme.
These are tales of terrifying witchcraft, of cosmic horror, of quaint magic, such as only H. P. Lovecraft could have conceived. Here in these pages Great Cthulhu walks again, the Dunwich-Arkham country lives once more, and, in a final allegory, Lovecraft himself is portrayed in a quasi-autobiographical manner.
August Derleth’s completion of these stories was a labor of love. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has so closely emulated the Lovecraft style as he–as these stories testify.
The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap
Among the papers of the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most compelte was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
The works in The Survivor and Others and the novel The Lurker at the Threshold were all presented as “unfinished” works, or works built up from Lovecraft’s notes. The truth was quite different: Lovecraft left no such incomplete stories. What he did leave was a commonplace book containing various bare ideas for stories, some fragments of prose, and a body of correspondence that included Lovecraft’s dreams and other ideas for stories never written during his lifetime. From these, Derleth wrote his “posthumous collaborations”—some of them (“The Lamp of Alhazred”) contained some genuine text from Lovecraft, but most of them were little more than stories vaguely suggested from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, as close to pure Derleth as most of Lovecraft’s “ghostwriting” efforts were pure Lovecraft. Derleth’s marketing of these works as “by Lovecraft and Derleth” was seen by some as dishonest…and worse than that, those that took Derleth at his word often took the works to be primarily Lovecraft’s, such as David Punter’s influential textbook The Literature of Terror (first edition 1980, second edition 1996).
It should be noted, however, thas as much as the publication of these stories always emphasized Lovecaft’s name and contribution, this was first and foremost a marketing gimmick. In private, just as Lovecraft would acknowledge his own contributions in his revision and ghostwriting work, Derleth would frankly acknowledge the full extant of his authorship:
[…] & Ballantine’s paperback of THE SURVIVOR & OTHERS (emphasizing Lovecraft, understandably, over Derleth, who did 97% of the writing) […]
The pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of and contributions to the Mythos has led to his stories being largely neglected by scholars and fans. Yet many of Derleth’s stories are worth at least a little study, and some understanding of how and why they were written and published can help elucidate the picture of Mythos publishing post-Lovecraft.
As should be clear, August Derleth didn’t start out writing “posthumous collaborations” as soon as Lovecraft’s corpse was cold. His first was The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), which has the distinction of being the first Mythos novel. Including Lovecraft’s name in this work can be barely defended—the ~50,000 word novel contains two unrelated fragments from Lovecraft’s papers, “The Round Tower” and “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England, of Daemons in No Humane Shape” which come to ~1,200 words—but it is clear that Derleth is using Lovecraft’s name predominantly for marketing purposes, and does not assay another “posthumous collaboration” until late 1953 or early 1954:
You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready–
“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words
“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words
“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words
There will be at least two more–or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.
By 1954, Weird Tales under editor Dorothy McIlwraith was on its last legs, having switched to bimonthly and a digest format, and even re-instated reprints to cut costs—which included reprinting some of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth was a loyal contributor and could have resurrected the “posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft” gimmick in an effort to help save the magazine—or, considering that Derleth had married in 1953 and his wife was pregnant, perhaps he simply needed the money. In either case, it was too little, too late to save Weird Tales, which folded with the September 1954 issue, before any of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” except “The Survivor” (WT July 1954) could be published.
I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…
Despite McIlwraith’s hopes, no one picked up publication of Weird Tales, and August Derleth was left with a handful of “posthumous collaborations” and very few markets in which to publish them. Eventually, Derleth would publish these stories through Arkham House in a volume titled The Survivor and Others (1957)…yet there is an interesting note in that book regarding one of the stories:
The Gable Window, copyright 1957, by Candar Publishing Company, Inc., (as The Murky Glass), for Saturn, May 1957.
The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page
Derleth had managed to get “The Gable Window” published, albeit under a different title—which is no great surprise, many editors change titles to suit their tastes, and some editors go further: they might break up or combine chapters and paragraphs, revise wording, even excise extraneous text or revise endings. Lovecraft decried these practices and would in later years be adamant that the editor not even change a comma, but Derleth was probably more practical and less particular: weird fiction was, for Derleth, often more of a potboiler effort than a major form of personal expression as it was with Lovecraft.
As it happens, a close (line-by-line) comparison between the Saturn text of “The Murky Glass” and the Survivor text of “The Gable Window” shows a number of differences between the two texts, most relatively minor. Without access to surviving drafts, it’s difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of revision or editorial interference, but by looking at a handful of the differences we might get an idea of the editorial thought behind those changes—and this is especially the case since “The Gable Window” text in The Survivor and Others is the basis for all other publications of the text. “The Murky Window” has never been reprinted as-is.
“The Murky Glass”
“The Gable Window”
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor. To tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and cold, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SA103)
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor, for to tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SO79-80)
One of the characteristics of Derleth’s pastiche style of Lovecraft is long, run-on sentences; a tendency that is more marked when sentences (and paragraphs) that were separate in “The Murky Glass” are conjoined in “The Gable Window.” Whether this was a result of an editor chopping up Derleth’s initial draft, or Derleth splicing together things to make longer sentences and paragraphs when preparing it for book publication is unclear, and either is likely. Derleth’s choice to omit “cold” from the description of the gable room probably reflects that he never refers to the room as particularly cold in the remainder of the story; a little clean-up.
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession of the house. (SA105)
My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession. (SO82)
Pulp writers typically had to shave words from a manuscript to meet tight wordcount limits, so the question here is: did Derleth include “of the house” originally and decide to excise it as unnecessary in “The Gable Window?” Or did the editors of Saturn think the line was unclear and add “of the house” to clarify?
Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, and these are as follows:
One: All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. Two: All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. Three: The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SA108)
“Dear Fred,” he wrote, “The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, as follows:
“1) All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed. “2) All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham. “3) The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.
“You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question…” (SO86)
The most notable changes between the two texts are format. The Saturn editors preferred italics to quotation marks, and spelling out words and months to abbreviations, The Survivor text is pithier. Which is better for reading is a bit of an open question; as a digest Saturn had to be divided into two columns per page, which might encourage shorter paragraphs, more frequent breaks, and the more streamlined experience italics give…or perhaps Derleth changed his mind.
What was I to make of these curious instructions? (SA108)
What was I to make of these strange instructions? (SO86)
Case in point, “curious” and “strange” in this context are basically synonymous, so the changing from one to the other is essentially down to personal preference rather than any kind of artistic or editorial justification. These are the kind of changes in word choice that you might expect to see either from an editor determined to change something or a writer that just liked to fiddle.
Most of the differences in “The Murky Glass” and “The Gable Window” are like that: formatting, word choice, a little cutting or rearranging, mostly in The Survivor and Others text. There are a handful of typos as well: “scratching” (“Murky”) becomes “cratching” (“Gable”); “Shanteks” (“Murky”) becomes “Shantaks” (“Gable”), “myths” (“Murky”) becomes “Mythos” (“Gable”), “subterranean” (“Murky”) becomes “subterrene” (“Gable”) and other bits like that. There is one rather significant and noticeable difference, however, in a particular passage:
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the . Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SA109)
These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SO87)
Either Derleth decided to insert several eldritch tomes in “The Gable Window,” or whoever was setting text or type for “The Murky Glass” dropped a line; given the odd period right before Celano, I lean toward the latter. Little printing errors like that just happen sometimes.
Even taken all together, the sum of these small textual differences do not substantially impact the story; this is not a Mythos equivalent of the Wicked Bible, but it shows that you should not take a given version of a text for granted. How do you know that the text you are reading in a Lovecraft book is what Lovecraft set down—or is by Lovecraft at all? How many editors have had their hands on it? Textual errors and variations have propped up and been carried forward…sometimes for decades and through multiple versions. In many online versions of “Herbert West—Reanimator” for example, you will find the text prefaced with a spurious quote from Dracula—which was not in Lovecraft’s original text or any major subsequent printing; it appears to have been added on to a freely available text on the internet sometime in the 2000s and to have spread from there, even into print editions that use Wikisource as their source.
You might well imagine how a reader in the 1950s might have felt as they sat down with their “new” book of Lovecraft stories, and wondered to themselves: did Lovecraft write this?
The point is all the more cogent because “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” is one of Derleth’s most poorly-received “posthumous collaborations.” We’ve focused so far on textual criticism and publishing history, but we haven’t discussed the content of the story or how it fits into the larger body of Mythos fiction. To understand that, let’s rewind back to how this story came to be.
After writing “The Survivor” (which was based on some actual notes Lovecraft left for a story of that name), Derleth turned to Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, which had been preserved by R. H. Barlow, for inspiration. Two plot-germs probably inspired “The Gable Window”:
Something seen at Oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house. (29)
Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harbored devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilization. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it. (41)
Derleth identified the second entry (“Pane of…”) as the genesis for the story in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959); Derleth scholar John Haefele adds the other (“Something seen…”) as a probable inspiration in A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 224, and I have to agree (the distinction between “Oriel” and “Gable” in this case being close enough for amateurs to mistake one for the other). The story is, although this is not immediately apparent, a tie-in to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” since the protagonist’s uncle is Henry Akeley—Derleth would be the first pasticheur to exploit genealogical connections, adding cousins to Lovecraft’s family trees in stories like “The Shuttered Room,” though far from the last.
The set-up for the plot is familiar: a relation has died, and the heir must goes to the old house and finds they’ve inherited a bit of a Mythos mess. Lovecraft himself never used this exact formulation, though “The Moon-Bog” and “The Rats in the Walls” both involve an heir rebuilding an ancestral manse or castle. Derleth had already written something similar in “The Return of Hastur” and “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” and would use the premise again in “The Seal of R’lyeh,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “The Shuttered Room,” “The Shadow on the Attic,” “The Horror from the Middle Span,” and “The Watchers out of Time.” It is ultimately a variation on the haunted house tale, or even of the Gothic inheritance of an ancestral house or castle, and there are a million different variations on that familiar theme, and Derleth was well-versed in such tales.
The pseudo-haunting takes its time to develop. While not every “posthumous collaboration” that Derleth wrote was explicitly part of the Mythos, “The Gable Window” was intended to be such a story, and so Derleth is careful to place it not far from Dunwich and Arkham, to drop references to Miskatonic University, and to build up to the succession of revelations. His prose doesn’t try to capture Lovecraft’s more ultraviolet style, and there is at least one passage which is very un-Lovecraftian:
No matter how I tried, I failed utterly to catch any sight of the cat, though I was disturbed in this fashion fully half a dozen times, until I was so upset that, had I caught sight of the cat, I would probably have shot it.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
It is always difficult to tell with Derleth whether certain details are drawn from his great familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence and life and how many are original to him. The name of the cat “Little Sam,” for example, recalls “Little Sam Perkins,” one of the neighborhood cats that Lovecraft doted on while he lived at 66 College St. If Derleth had incorporated some of Lovecraft’s material from his letters about Sam Perkins, we could say for certain, but Derleth didn’t. Instead, Little Sam occupies largely the same purpose in the text as the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” does, as an animal attuned to the strange dangers in the house.
As the story progresses, Derleth presents his interpretation of the Mythos. Keep in mind, “The Gable Window” was originally intended for magazine publication, and not necessarily to an audience that would be immediately familiar with any of the preceeding Mythos fiction, so this is a point he tends to bring up more often and more explicitly in his 1940s and 1950s fiction to introduce it to new audiences; when reading chunks of his fiction at once, it can get a bit repetitive:
It was the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness, or at least, so I took it to be. Did it matter whether you called it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones—the idiot god, Azathoth, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity; Yog-Sothoth, the all-in-one and one-in-all, subject to neither the laws of time nor of space, co-existent with all time and con-terminous with space; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Ancient Ones; Great Cthulhu, waiting to rise again from hidden R’lyeh in the depths of the sea; the unspeakable Hastur, Lord of the Interstellar Spaces; Shub-Niggurath, the black goat of the woods with a thousand young?
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83
Derleth was capable of subtlety in his fiction and the slow and careful development of mood, but this recital or regurgitation of blasphemous names and casting the whole implicitly complex artificial mythology into a Manichaean dichtomy is not an example of it. This tendency to cram everything into a story is very fannish, but in the case of this story it also serves as build-up for the next section: the reader is basically given a crash course on the Mythos so that they can be prepped to see where the story is heading. Mythos fans can pat themselves on the back for catching the references, and new readers can at least sort of follow along.
In portraying the Mythos this way, Derleth also repeats many of the inherent prejudices in Mythos fiction in brief and in miniature. For example:
There were also more recognizable human beings, however distorted—stunted and dwarfed Oreintals living in a cold place, to judge by their attire, and a race born of miscegenation, with certain characteristics of the batrachian beings, yet unmistakably human.
August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 90
The “stunted and dwarfed Orientals” are probably the Tcho-Tcho; the “race born of msicegenation” probably the inhabitants of Innsmouth. It’s notable that Derleth is more explicit in his language here than Lovecraft ever was in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and he gets even more explicit on the next page when he writes: “Deep Ones together with humans of partly similar origin: hybrid white” (91). The dry technical nature of the language robs the idea of Innsmouth hybrids of their mystery and mystique; he might as well be describing a creole colony…and that kind of misses the entire point of Lovecraft’s story. “Innsmouth” presented miscegnation (without ever using the word) as the intended accepted explanation for why the people of Innsmouth were hated and feared by their neighbors; racial discrimination was the red herring that concealed the much weirder revelation that the horror wasn’t a mixed race Pacific Islander or Asian community, but something altogether less homo sapiens.
Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, there isn’t an excess of plot. The use of the journal excerpts allows Derleth to indulge himself a bit in describing exotic landscapes and beings, and to build mood. The result is something of an orgy of evidence for the Mythos, touching on many different entities and places, some of which would be unfamiliar to Mythos fans. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain laziness to Derleth’s approach. Why would the words that activate the glass from Leng be “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn?” That is the motto of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu,” but here Derleth uses it where another writer of a more mundane demonology might have used “abracadabra.”
Pedantic nitpicking aside, “The Gable Window” comes to a well-telegraphed end…and a relatively light legacy. Readers of “The Murky Glass” in Saturn might have been intrigued by the idea of an extraterrestrial glass that showed alien worlds, which has had its fair number of variations in fantasy already (e.g. “The Wonderful Window” by Lord Dunsany), but Mythos fans took very little notice of it. Derleth introduces the Sand-Dwellers in this story, for example, but never used or referenced them elsewhere again, and very few other authors have picked up the threads of this story (most notably Adam Niswander in his 1998 novel The Sand Dwellers). The biggest impact the story had has been on the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, which gladly incorporated both the Glass from Leng and the Sand-Dwellers into its version of the Mythos, and has continued to make some small use of them in every edition since.
While it is impossible to say if Derleth himself was unsatisfied with “The Gable Window” as written, but there is the suggestion that he might have been inspired to make another attempt:
This glass also has attributes similar to the tower window in The Lurker at the Threshold, which Derleth derived from Lovecraft’s “The Rose Window” prose fragment. Referring to the fragment as the “notes relative to the mysterious window or ‘carved surface with convex glass circle seven inches in diameter in centre’ related primarily to a story to be set on ‘Central Hill, Kingsport’ in the ancient house of ‘Edward Orne,'” Derleth admits how, “This story remains in essence to be written, since not enough was borrowed from this set of notes to invalidate a second story; and I mean to write it, possibly in novel length, time and circumstances permitting, under the title The Watchers Out of Time” (“Unfinished Manuscripts”).
Derleth would not live long enough to finish “The Watchers Out of Time,” but it may well be that the fragment of a story he did write owes something to “The Gable Window,” since he felt he hadn’t quite exhausted the possibilities of the glass from Leng. One had to wonder if the massive spread of televisions in United States homes after World War II played any influence in what was, in many ways, an eldritch audiovisual receiver.
Taken as a whole, “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” represents much of what has soured Derleth’s reputation among Lovecraft fans and scholars: it is neither a terrible or a terrific weird tale, but a relatively average story that remixes some very familiar tropes and adds a smorgasboard of Mythos references, in addition to a somewhat preachy version of Derleth’s particular take on the Mythos (although it leaves out the elemental associations). Perhaps most damning, in every publication it was presented as a joint work with Lovecraft, who had nothing to do with it. Derleth was a competent weird fictioneer, and that’s what this story was intended to be when it was written with Weird Tales in mind: the Mythos as a reliable product, with Lovecraft’s name as a marketing draw.
Which is probably the most damning thing. Lovecraft was an auteur who took painstaking efforts with his stories, and whether or not you like his person or his prose, his stories represent a great deal of work from the initial plotting to the craft of writing. Derleth, by comparison, was much more restricted in the time and energy he could or would devote to his weird fiction, and while the stories might have been passable to pulp audiences in the 1950s, they are consistently outshone by Lovecraft’s actual fiction, and Derleth’s conception of the Mythos is shown to be much more limited and imperfect than that of his friend…as though viewed through a murky glass.
“The Murky Glass” was published in Saturn May 1957, and was not published again under that title. “The Gable Window” has been published in multiple anthologies and collections of Lovecraft and Derleth’s Mythos fiction, including The Watchers Out of Time (2008, Del Rey).