Lovecraft’s tales fascinate me, but they do not frighten.
—Dorothy Tilden Spoerl, “Cosmic Horror” in The Ghost #3 (1945)
The Ghost was an amateur journal published by Lovecraft’s friend W. Paul Cook; it had a very small print run, and was never sold. The contents were drawn largely from Lovecraft’s circle of friends and correspondents, and include important pieces—August Derleth’s thesis on weird fiction, which shows Lovecraft’s influence; E. Hoffmann Price’s memoirs of Farnsworth Wright and Robert E. Howard, which would be the start of his Book of the Dead; essays on James F. Morton, etc. The content was not all Lovecraftian, but these rarities became collector’s items because of that content.
Issue #3 begins with a little mystery: a rather one-page article of appreciation on Lovecraft entitled “Cosmic Horror” by Dorothy Tilden Spoerl. It has been largely forgotten by time, although it appears to be one of the first such appreciations by a woman on Lovecraft’s fiction to see print. But who was Spoerl? What connection did she have with Lovecraft?
There is no obvious trace of Dorothy T. Spoerl in Lovecraft’s published correspondence. Her autobiography makes no mention of Lovecraft, pulp fiction, or amateur journalism; although it gives a little context: in 1945 she was 35 years old, married to minister Howard Spoerl, and had a PhD in Psychology; “Cosmic Horror” appears to be her only amateur publication of record. On her husband Howard Spoerl, there is a little more data: he had placed poems in the amateur journal Driftwind (1935, produced by Walter J. Coates, a friend of Lovecraft’s), Leaves (1938, produced by R. H. Barlow, Lovecraft’s literary executor), and The Ghost (1945 and 1947 issues).
The Spoerls, then, appear to have been at least friends-of-friends and part of the wider community of amateur journalism, even if they never met Lovecraft directly.
The title as much as anything suggests that Dorothy Tilden Spoerl had read Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature”, which had first seen print in W. Paul Cook’s earlier amateur journal The Recluse (1927); revised, expanded, and serialized (but the series never finished) for the fanzine The Fantasy Fan (1933-1935); and finally Arkham House reprinted the whole thing in The Outsider and Others (1939). So we know that Spoerl read that; the essay specifically mentions both “The Shunned House” and “The Picture in the House,” which stories had appeared in multiple formats before 1945, including The Outsider and Others; but we have no idea what all of Lovecraft she read.
Yet she did read him.
Which says something in itself. Though one can hardly imagine a pair of folks more ideologically different—Spoerl’s faith appears to have been very sincere; Lovecraft a determined atheist—she did find a connection with him through his fiction. It spoke to a part of her own experience, and that was something she wanted to share. We don’t know why she read Lovecraft, but her reaction to reading Lovecraft speaks to why the Old Gent’s fiction retains its popularity: the themes resonate with people, even those markedly different in outlook from Lovecraft himself.
The Reverend Doctor Dorothy Tilden Spoerl died in 1999 at the age of 93. “Cosmic Horror” was published only once, in The Ghost #3 (1945). No copyright renewal could be located.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).