“A Night at Yuan-Su” (2005) by Nanjo Takenori (南條竹則)

My heart is gently warmed, in particular, by the many works left by an obscure writer who lived in Providence in the early twentieth century. when I read his work, I am strangely suffused with warmth, as though I have found a friend from beyond the seas.
—“A Night at Yuan-Su,” Inverted Kingdom: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Vol. Two 279

“A Night at Yuan-Su” (2005) by Nanjō Takenori (南條竹則) was published in the second volume in the Lairs of the Hidden Gods series from Kurodahan Press, edited by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健). It is the English-language translation of the 2002 story ユアン・スーの一夜 (Yuan Sū no Yoru); the translator was Usha Jayaraman.

In his letters, H. P. Lovecraft decried the loss of old buildings, old ways of life. He was not a Luddite, but his sense of aesthetics was tied to antique styles, and he despaired when an old block of buildings was torn down to make way for something new, as a piece of the past was lost. In this sense, he felt a stranger in his own century. Some of these sentiments are apparent in his fiction, in stories like “He” and “The Outsider.” The idea is expressed most succinctly in sonnet XXX of the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle, “Background”:

I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,

In this brief tale, Nanjō Takenori sketches the story of a different outsider, thousands of miles away, lamenting the slow loss of historic Tokyo. There are nods to Lovecraft here and there—and a certain kind of humor. The narrator’s deprecation of human beings could almost have turned into one of Lovecraft’s rants about immigrants, the new people displacing the old, but stops short; “A Night at Yuan-Su” is not “The Street” or any other kind of racist fable. It is, ultimately, about a lonely creature out for a drink and a bit of quiet companionship.

This is where the narrative takes a turn, from the atmospheric descriptions of Yuan-Su (really Harajuku in Tokyo), its old buildings torn down to make way for housing developments, to the more fantastic. Reminiscences of a bar named HE, where Imhotep serves araq to an odd clientele. Odd reactions, fragments of names. Unlike Lovecraft’s eponymous Outsider, there is no final revelation in the story…but there is still that peculiar sense of humor. Earlier in the tale, the nameless narrator describes the evil spell of Betelgeuse, the red star, has on them. At the end, finally settling down with a beer and a bowl of tofu, they are thwarted by a shot of ergoutou (Chinese sorghum liquor)—one of the popular brands of which is Red Star.

Given the setting, I almost suspect there are parts of the joke I’m missing. Perhaps the narrator’s particular attributes reflect some specific species of yōkai which Japanese readers might be more familiar with; perhaps the fragmentary names of bars contain more half-hidden meanings for those familiar with Mandarin and Japanese. Whether this is the case or not, doesn’t really matter for the enjoyment of the story. It’s a mood piece, a snapshot of a night, a moment, an attitude. We have all been outsiders, at times; there’s an empathy there for those who desire simple comforts which are then denied.

Never again will I go into that dirty town. Not even on a bright, moonlit night! I have no need to. If my loneliness gets the better of me, if I feel like visiting a friend, I can always go to Celephaïs, the city of dreams, wrapt in its golden aura…
—”A Night at Yuan-Su,” Inverted Kingdom: Lairs of the Hidden Gods Vol. Two 285

In a dream I fled from that haunted and accursed pile, and ran swiftly and silently in the moonlight. When I returned to the churchyard place of marble and went down the steps I found the stone trap-door immovable; but I was not sorry, for I had hated the antique castle and the trees. Now I ride with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile. I know that light is not for me, save that of the moon over the rock tombs of Neb, nor any gaiety save the unnamed feasts of Nitokris beneath the Great Pyramid; yet in my new wildness and freedom I almost welcome the bitterness of alienage.
“The Outsider”

The end of “A Night at Yuan-Su” is curiously ambiguous. Does the nameless narrator mean literally that they will go to Celephaïs, or is that a poetic statement to refer to diving once more into Lovecraft’s fiction, finding comfort in the old familiar tales? It can be read either way; nothing the narrator says or does up to this point is explicitly supernatural. Whether they are a human recluse or something else is left up to the reader—and many readers will want to believe in the stranger, more fantastic option. It is a meaner, uglier world that doesn’t allow for a bar named HE to stand on some corner of Harajuku, where exiles from fantastic lands can sip anise-flavored liquors with their collars turned up and their big hats dipped low over their faces, speaking of distant planets and the depths of the sea.


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

“Polaris” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft & “The Lair of the Star-Spawn” (1932) by August Derleth and Mark Schorer

That night had the news come of Daikos’ fall, and of the advance of the Inutos; squat, hellish, yellow fiends who five years ago had appeared out of the unknown west to ravage the confines of our kingdom, and finally to besiege our towns. Having taken the fortified places at the foot of the mountains, their way now lay open to the plateau, unless every citizen could resist with the strength of ten men. For the squat creatures were mighty in the arts of war, and knew not the scruples of honour which held back our tall, grey-eyed men of Lomar from ruthless conquest. […]

They say there is no land of Lomar, save in my nocturnal imaginings; that in those realms where the Pole Star shines high and red Aldebaran crawls low around the horizon, there has been naught save ice and snow for thousands of years, and never a man save squat yellow creatures, blighted by the cold, whom they call “Esquimaux”.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Polaris”

At the end of the 19th century, the Yellow Peril or Yellow Terror had gripped the imagination of the Western world; works such as weird fiction author M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger; Or, what Might Happen in the Division of the Chinese Empire Should Estrange all European Countries (1898) were pure invective, fueling racist and Orientalist fantasies about Asia and the prospect of a global conflict on the lines not of nation-states, but of race. The victory of an industrialized Japan in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) stoked these fears, and a year before the Great War broke out found an avatar in Dr. Fu Manchu, the villainous star of what would become thirteen novels by Sax Rohmer. Fu Manchu would inspire hundreds of copycats, not a few of whom appeared in Weird Tales, and even by favorite authors; Robert E. Howard’s “Kathulos” from the serial “Skull-Face” (1929) definitely has Fu Manchu in its literary DNA. The Yellow Peril, in more generalized form, would be familiar in Weird Tales throughout its entire run from 1923-1954, as was the case in many pulps.

Throughout his life H. P. Lovecraft was clear in his genuine belief in the Yellow Peril, at least as an impending threat. One passage from a letter will suffice to give the general substance of this racialist paranoia, although in many other instances Lovecraft wrote admiringly of Japanese culture and aesthetics, and of Japanese actors and artists:

Of Japan I have not so far spoken, because I think it a certain enemy of the future, which no plan can permanently make a friend. It demands free access to Anglo-Saxon soil for its citizens, and this can never be given. Orientals must be kept in their native East till the fall of the white race. Sooner or later a great Japanese war will take place, during which I think the virtual destruction of Japan will have to be effected in the interests of European safety. The more numerous Chinese are a menace of the still more distant future. They will probably be the exterminators of Caucasian civilisation, for their numbers are amazing. But that is all too far ahead for consideration today.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Sep 1919, Letters to Alfred Galpin 57

Despite this belief, which was relatively common during the period, the Yellow Peril is scarce in Lovecraft’s fiction. He never quite develops a Fu Manchu type character, the cult in “The Horror at Red Hook” has overtones of the multiethnic criminal enterprise of Rohmer’s villain, the “corpse-eating cult of inaccessible Leng” in “The Hound” is located in Central Asia, and Castro in “The Call of Cthulhu” claims that he has spoken to the “undying leaders of the cult in the mountains of China,” likely a reference to the mythical Shambala and the claims of the Theosophical Society to receive their guidance from the Great White Brotherhood in Asia. There are only two stories where the idea of a racial conflict on these lines is suggested in Lovecraft’s fiction: a glancing reference in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (“that Pickman Carter who in the year 2169 would use strange means in repelling the Mongol hordes from Australia”) written with E. Hoffmann Price, and the very short story “Polaris.”

The story came from an odd start. In 1918, Lovecraft was arguing about religion in one of his letters, which led to a discussion of truth and recalling a recent dream:

Several nights ago I had a strange dream of a strange city—a city of many palaces and gilded domes, lying in a hollow betwixt ranges of grey, horrible hills. There was not a soul in this vast region of stone-paved streets and marble walls and columns, and the numerous statues in the public places were of strange bearded men in robes the like whereof I have never seen before or since. […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 15 May 1918, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 70

Shortly thereafter, Lovecraft shaped the dream into “Polaris,” about a man who dreams (or is possessed by the spirit) of an ancestor from 26,000 years before, in the land of Lomar situated in the far north. This would be familiar to audiences at the time as a reference to racialist theories of Caucasians originating from Northern Europe. Lomar is under peril from the Inutos—and these are explicitly Asian stereotypes, which Lovecraft near the end directly associates them with the Inuit people, foreshadowing his reference to the “degenerate Esquimaux” in “The Call of Cthulhu” a decade later.

At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s racialist beliefs were strongly influenced by Thomas Henry Huxley, who categorized the Inuit and other Native Americans and trans-polar peoples as “Mongoloids” alongside many Asian ethnicities. Lovecraft typically shortened this to reference to “Mongolians” or “Mongols,” regardless of nationality or ethnicity. The fantasy racism that Lovecraft engages in here, equating a contemporary group of people with a mythical precursor, was not unknown—the entire “Lost Race” subgenre of scientific romance depends on such linkages, and the basic ideology can be seen in Robert E. Howard’s “The Hyborian Age” (1936) essay and in some of the worldbuilding of J. R. R. Tolkien, who at the same time was crafting what would the background of The Hobbit (1937) and The Lrod of the Rings (1955).

Lovecraft’s use of the term “Esquimau” and its plural “Esquimaux” was a touch archaic in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s, but not necessarily intended as a pejorative. The term “Eskimo” was in general use (as evidenced by the 1933 film Eskimo, which Lovecraft had seen), and Lovecraft’s preference for the older form an apparent affection. The term “Inutos” suggests he was at least aware of the term “Inuit,” even if he chose not to use it; the suffix “-os” would make the name match the other pseudo-Grecian names in the story. While there are no contemporary accounts of Lovecraft’s thoughts on the Inuit, later in life his few references in his letters categorize them as a “degenerate offshoot” of the “Mongolian race.” (A Means to Freedom 1.482) This was a very typical distinction for Lovecraft to make, when regarding a culture that he was generally ignorant of but perceived as “primitive” compared to contemporary (and white) civilization.

Which is a great deal to unpack from a few lines in a story of a little over 1,500 words. Nor was it an immediate success; Lovecraft shared it in the amateur Transatlantic Circular, and it was published in the amateur journal The Philosopher in 1920. In 1925, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales, but it was rejected as a “prose-poem.” In 1931, Lovecraft submitted it to editor Harry Bates at Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror, who likewise rejected it, and in 1932 to Carl Swanson’s projected magazine Galaxy, which never came out. “Polaris” was finally reprinted in the fanzine The Fantasy Fan (Feb 1934), where it was well-received by readers. The first professional publication of “Polaris” was posthumous, in Weird Tales (Dec 1937). August Derleth and Donald Wandrei included it in their initial Arkham House publication The Outsider and Others (1939), sealing its place in the Lovecraft canon.

That wasn’t necessarily the case. Lovecraft had a soft spot for the little tale, but soured on it nearer the end of his life:

“Polaris” is a sort of semi-favourite of mine—written in 1918 & therefore largely experimental.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Aug 1930,
Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 229

I’ve expunged both from my list of acknowledged writings—relating them to the oblivion now enjoyed by such failures as “The Street” & “Juan Romero”. Before long I shall strike other times out in the same way—”The Tree”, “Polaris”, “The Hound”, “The White Ship”, “He”, & perhaps a few more. It doesn’t do me any good to have my name associated with absurd crap.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 120

The real legacy of “Polaris” and the impact it had on Lovecraft and his writings is that the idea of Lomar as this mythical ancient northern land became an intertextual element in Lovecraft’s fiction, mentioned in “The Other Gods,” “The Quest of Iranon,” “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” “The Mound” (with Zealia Bishop), At the Mountains of Madness, “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (with E. Hoffmann Price), and “The Horror in the Museum” (with Hazel Heald), and “The Shadow out of Time,” which contains Lovecraft’s only other reference to the Inutos:

I talked […] with that of a king of Lomar who had ruled that terrible polar land 100,000 years before the squat, yellow Inutos came from the west to engulf it […]
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”

Which is where things get a little weird. In “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” Lovecraft says:

[…] the hairy cannibal Gnophkehs overcame many-templed Olathoë and slew all the heroes of the land of Lomar.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath”

Just to make things complicated, a very different entity with a similar name and geographic bound is given in another story:

A small bulge in the canvas far to the right suggested the sharp horn of Gnoph-keh, the hairy myth-thing of the Greenland ice, that walked sometimes on two legs, sometimes on four, and sometimes on six.
—H. P. Lovecraft & Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”

The accounts are contradictory and at a glance irreconcilable; it is difficult to tell if Lovecraft was deliberately muddying the waters of his own Mythos, or if his conception of what caused the fall of Lomar had shifted from 1918 when he wrote “Polaris” to 1926 when he wrote “Dream-Quest” to 1932 when he wrote “The Horror in the Museum” for Hazel Heald. Later writers made efforts to gloss these contradictions, which resulted in stories such as “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price.

It is too much to suggest that Lovecraft made the change from Inutos to Gnophkehs because he recognized the Yellow Peril influence of the work and wished to change it; the last appearance of the Inutos is in “The Shadow out of Time,” written in 1934, and there is no evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that his basic prejudices regarding the Inuit changed substantially by that point in his life.

When we talk about talk about the effect that Lovecraft’s prejudices had on his fiction, and by extension the fiction of other writers, it is not necessarily the very blatant examples of an N-word in print, or even the infamous ending to “Medusa’s Coil.” It is the much more subtle impact of racialist thought and tropes, however common and accepted they may have been in Lovecraft’s time, which persist as part of the Mythos. The Inutos, thankfully, are not especially pervasive in the wider Cthulhu Mythos; Lomar and Gnoph-Keh/the gnophkehs are more popular.

This is not always the case.

One of us was home for the summer from a year of teaching at a military academy in Missouri and preparing for post-graduate work at Wisconsin and Harvard, the other was back to stay in Sauk City, Wisconsin, having resigned an editorial position with Fawcett Publications in order to do or die as a writer. Though both our homes were in Sauk City, we chose not to work in them but to rent what had once been a summer cottage on the village’s main street, just north of the business section, in a relatively quite zone on the west bank of the Wisconsin. […] the method of work was this—the basic outline for each story was set down by Derleth, the entire first draft then written by Schorer, a final revision made by Derleth. […] he went over the manuscript, sometimes rewriting, sometimes simply retyping selected pages or paragraphs; and prepared the story for submission—usually to Weird Tales or Strange Tales, and rounded out the evening by outlining the next story to be done.
—August Derleth & Mark Schorer, Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People

The industrious collaboration during the summer of 1931 netted the two young writers 17 stories, one of which was a Mythos story titled “The Statement of Eric Marsh,” echoing Lovecraft’s “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” and it would introduce a new element to the expanding artificial mythology:

Though your major field will probably be much broader, you nevertheless have a very distinct aptitude for convincing spectral creation; & it would be a pity if things like the Tcho-Tchos & Rigelian daemons were to remain for ever unchronicled.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 3 Aug 1931, Essential Solitude 1.354

Herewith the Tcho-Tcho story, The Statement of Eric Marsh; I don’t like the story. Have you any suggestions for a better one? But then, the story is rotten, too.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Aug 1931, ES1.365

As for a new title—how would “The City of Elder Evil” do? Or “The Lair of the Star-Spawn”? I’m not much for fancy titles, but I presume something on this order is what you’re looking for. I shall undoubtedly use the Tcho-Tchos in some later story—let Wright say what he please!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 26 Aug 1931, ES1.367

“The Lair of the Star-Spawn” became the title; the story was accepted and published in Weird Tales (Aug 1932). Among the elements that Derleth & Schorer added or referenced in the story were the Tcho-Tcho:

It is true that strange legends had reached us, even before we had left Ho-Nan province, of a weird race of little people, wo whom the natives applied the odd name, Tcho-Tcho, supposedly living near or on the Plateau of Sung.

So the Hawk Expedition proceeded into Burma (present-day Myanmar). The story in many ways is a very typical Lost World/Lost Race narrative, comparable to H. Rider Haggard’s She (1886), Edgar Rice Burrough’s At the Earth’s Core (1914), Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (1933) and “Red Nails” (1936), C. L. Moore’s “The Tree of Life” (1936), and many others—only with a Mythos twist, as the Tcho-Tcho are servants of Lloigor and Zhar. The descriptions of them are stereotypical:

[…] the tallest of them no more than four feet, with singularly small eyes set deep in dome-like, hairless heads. These queer attackers fell upon the party and had killed men and animals with their bright swords almost before our men could extract their weapons. […]

The Tcho-Tcho people could not believe them dead, since it is impossible for them to conceive of such a weapon as a gun. At base, they are very simple people. Yet they are inherently malevolent, for they now that they are working for the destruction of all that is good in the world. […]

Then the Old Ones, the Elder Gods, returned to the stars of Orion, leaving behind them ever-damned Cthulhu, Lloigor, Zhar, and others. But the evil ones left seeds on the plateau, on the island in the Lake of Dread which the Old Ones caused to be put here. Anf rom these seeds have sprung the Tcho-Tcho people, the spawn of elder evil, and now these people await the day when Loloigor and Zhar will rise again and sweep over all the earth!

Damning an entire species to be unapologetically or uncomplicatedly “evil” from birth is a gross oversimplification—but easy moralities play well in politics, pulp stories, and fairytales; J. R. R. Tolkien would do much the same thing with Orcs in his legendarium, with all the unfortunate implications still being worked out decades later. It’s not necessarily a problem of having a group of antagonists depicted as irredeemable—its the use of racialist language, ideas, and reasoning behind it.

Like the Inutos of “Polaris,” the Tcho-Tcho are depicted as aggressive, primitive, and adversarial to the main viewpoint of the story; Lovecraft doesn’t make the Inutos explicitly evil (or the men of Lomar good), but the framing of the story as a quasi-fable of the Yellow Peril would establish those relationships with the readers. Derleth & Schorer are if anything more explicit, even if they make the Tcho-Tcho a “race apart,” from both the Caucasian Eric Marsh and the Chinese Dr. Fo-Lan.

If it had been a one-off story where the Tcho-Tcho were never mentioned again, this would be worthy of a footnote—none of them appear to survive the end of Derleth & Schorer’s tale, though Derleth references them again in “The Thing That Walked On the Wind” (1933) and a few later stories; “The Sandwin Compact” (1940) moves them from Burma to Tibet—but of course, it didn’t end there.

“Do you remember,” he shouted, “what I told you about that ruined city in Indo-China where the Tcho-Tchos lived? You had to admit I’d been there when you saw the photographs, even if you did think I made that oblong swimmer in darkness out of wax. If you’d seen it writhing in the underground pools as I did. . . .”
—H. P. Lovecraft and Hazel Heald, “The Horror in the Museum”

Of earthly minds there were some from the winged, star-headed, half-vegetable race of palaeogean Antarctica; one from the reptile people of fabled Valusia; three from the furry pre-human Hyperborean worshippers of Tsathoggua; one from the wholly abominable Tcho-Tchos; two from the arachnid denizens of earth’s last age; five from the hardy coleopterous species immediately following mankind, to which the Great Race was some day to transfer its keenest minds en masse in the face of horrible peril; and several from different branches of humanity.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow out of Time”

Lovecraft doesn’t expand much on the original conception of the Tcho-Tcho, aside from adding the “s” for a plural; he places them alongside the Serpent-People of Robert E. Howard’s “The Shadow Kingdom,” the Voormi of Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seven Geases,” and his own Elder Things from At the Mountains of Madness—all in good fun, just an inside joke for astute readers and members of the gang. Yet it cemented, if that was necessary, the Tcho-Tcho as part of the Mythos.

For many readers the occasional references to the Tcho-Tcho people encountered in Cthulhu Mythos fiction do not really register. Aren’t these hard-to-prounounce people just one more of the so-called “servitor-races” of the Old Ones? So what?
—Robert M. Price and Tani Jantsang, “The True History of the Tcho Tcho People”
in Crypt of Cthulhu #51, 24

Unlike the Inutos, several later authors decided to elaborate on the Tcho-Tcho, to various purpose and effect. The term “servitor-races” that Price and Jantsang use is particular to the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, and is exemplary of the problem that the Tcho-Tcho embody: the long shadow of the Yellow Peril, sliding uncomfortably into the contemporary day. Call of Cthulhu came out of Runequest which came out of Dungeons & Dragons, which based itself on the borrowed racialist terminology of later 19th and early 20th century popular fiction: scientific romance, science fiction, fantasy, pulp fiction, Lost World and Lost Race tales, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Robert E. Howard, H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber…and more, but the gist is that in the translation to the roleplaying milieu, the Tcho-Tcho, Deep Ones, and other strange critters of the Mythos were translated into D&D-esque terms: where Tolkien (and thus D&D) had “races” of Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, and Humans, CoC had Humans, Deep Ones, Serpent People, Voormis, and Tcho-Tcho.

The habit of thinking of groups of sentient humanoid entities as biologically and culturally distinct from anatomically modern humans and essentially not human and morally irredeemable can be problematic in and of itself—there are plenty of parallels to scientific racialism and racial discrimination, which some authors of the Mythos have explored, such as in “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys.

In the case of the Tcho-Tcho, there are added wrinkles: their original placement in Southeast Asia, and subsequent movement around Asia by different authors, their depiction as inherently autochthonous and antagonistic to “human” life, and their initial description aspects of Asian visual stereotypes (short stature, different eyes), has allowed them to pick up several more Yellow Peril characteristics in their general depiction. Many Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game products, including spin-offs like Delta Green, depict the Tcho-Tcho as Asian characters, often conflating them with negative stereotypes as criminals and drug-dealers.

The issue of the Inutos and the Tcho-Tcho is a problem that transcends the Cthulhu Mythos. Those are symptoms, the result of many different writers working independently toward different goals, not stepping back to consider where some of the conceptions they were using came from or how they were being used. Fantasy racism can be used to explore some of the consequences of real-life racial discrimination and prejudice in a way that echoes the experience of ethnic minorities without calling them out…and it can be used very lazily, so that Tcho-Tcho (or Orcs,  etc.) can serve as easy villains and faceless fodder for the heroes to kill without moral compunction.

It is seductively easy to use stereotypes to apply to entire groups of people. That’s why pulp fictioneers did it; painting with a broad brush, using tropes the readers were familiar with, they could sketch out stories quickly and the reader could suspend disbelief. It is also why many people use it today; discrimination is terribly easy, appreciating the nuance and complexity of human relationships and seeing them as individuals rather than representatives of a group is hard.

Perhaps because of the initial complexity of “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and their tremendous popularity, the Deep Ones have gotten a lot of attention and engendered a good deal of sympathy from later Mythos writers. The Tcho-Tcho have not attracted anything like the same level of development or empathy, and have fallen into a very weird space where they have largely become “acceptable villains” in Mythos roleplay and fiction—and, if they have not already, are in danger of becoming nothing more than a Mythos-flavored Yellow Peril.


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

“On A Dreamland’s Moon” (2017) by Ashley Dioses

The cats of Ulthar steal across my dreams
On paws of softest fur and blure the seams
Of my subconscious with their purrs and eyes
Of molten gold that twinkle and that gleam
Like Beacon lights toward where their kingdom lies.
—Opening stanza of “On A Dreamland’s Moon” by Ashley Dioses,
Diary of a Sorceress (2017), 120

Poetry is an inextricable part of the Mythos, there from the beginning. Lovecraft and many of his contemporaries were poets, from the sonnet-cycle “The Fungi from Yuggoth” published in Weird Tales by the grace of editors Farnsworth Wright and Dorothy McIlwraith, to Robert E. Howard’s “Arkham” and the verses of the mad poet Justin Geoffrey capture in “The Black Stone.” Fans got in on the act fairly early on, including “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson & “The Woods of Averoigne” (1934) by Grace Stillman, and the poetic tradition of the Mythos has continued down to the present day, through practitioners such as Ann K. Schwader, and to Ashley Dioses.

“On A Dreamland’s Moon” takes its most direct inspiration from Lovecraft’s The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadathbut the object of this dreamer’s quest is not the hidden gods of dream, but Nyarlathotep, the crawling chaos. In language and imagery, however, the influence of Clark Ashton Smith is more evident, echoing some of his narrative poems such as “The Nightmare Tarn.” The purpose for which the narrator seeks out the soul and messenger of the Other Gods is revealed in such lines as:

Hail Nitokris, my patron, grant me skill
In amorous endeavors so the thrill
Of His enchantment will coil round my soul!
—”On A Dreamland’s Moon,” Diary of a Sorceress 121

Again, very much in the tradition of Clark Ashton Smith, whose work so often dealt with love, sorcery, and death. The carnality by contemporary standards is subdued and artistic; erotic fantasies are better hinted at for the imagination to paint than spelled out explicitly, and there is always beauty in it, nothing as gritty as “Cthulhu Sex (ahem!)—a poem—” (1998) by Katherine Morel.

One thing that jumps out in this work is the clever expansion of the role of Nitocris in the Mythos from her original appearances in both Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” and “Under the Pyramids” (as “Nitokris”). A relatively minor character, seldom-used by other Mythos writers (Brian Lumley’s “The Mirror of Nitocris” comes to mind), the idea of the ghoul-queen as a spiritual patron—someone to model yourself after—is both entirely appropriate and offers interesting possibilities. Dioses expands on the character further in the subsequent poem, titled simply “Nitokris.”

Diary of a Sorceress is based after the Sorceress in the poem. This is her diary.
—Ashley Dioses, “Afterword” in Diary of a Sorceress 166

For context, within the book itself “On A Dreamland’s Moon” is sandwiched between the poems “Nyarlathotep” and “Nitokris” in the fourth section of the book. The three poems together form a thematic unit, but not a narrative one, in that they share characters and can be seen to speak about the same setting, but are not linear entries in the same story. The same in general could be said for the book as a whole: this is a collection, and there is a thread of a narrative that binds some of the poems together, but it is not a case that every poem is an integral part of the eponymous sorceress’ descent, and most can be enjoyed on their own.

What is interesting in considering “On A Dreamland’s Moon” in the context of the collection is how the Sorceress in her dreams is drawn by dark attraction to seek an inevitable yet destructive meeting. This puts the shoe on the other foot compared to how she initially responded to the love letter in the waking world, where she herself was the object of attraction…and the consummation and dissolution that the Sorceress faces in dream perhaps foreshadows what is to come, in the diary’s final entries.

“On A Dreamland’s Moon” was first published in Black Wings VI: New Tales of Lovecraftian Terror (2017), and then collected in Diary of a Sorceress. Ashley Dioses has published a good deal of weird and Lovecraftian poetry in places such as Weirdbook, Vasterian, Necronomicum, Skelos, Hinnom, and Infernal Ink.


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

 

“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (1951) by Margaret St. Clair

A HYMN OF HATE

Margaret St. Clair, of Berkeley, California, writes: “I’ve been a good quiet uncomplainng reader of WEIRD TALES for about ten years—but the prospect of another story by Edmond Hamilton moves me to hysterical outcry. He makes me want to scream and bite my nails—’captured thirty-six suns’ indeed! His style is nothing but exclamation marks; his idea of drama is something involving a fantastic number of light-speeds; he is, in the words of one of my favorite comic strip characters, flies in my soup. He is science-fiction at its worst: all WEIRD TALES needs to make the science-fiction atmosphere perfect is a letter from Forrest J. Ackerman and a story by Hamilton. Oh, and another gripe—I dislike the blurbs you are printing at the first of the stories. They are just a waste of space. I hate vampire and werewolf stories—my blood refuses to congeal for any number of undead clammily hooting about. There was a time when I could be made to shiver by the mention of garlic, but now it’s just something to put in salad. Things like Shambleau are what I like. As long as WT prints stories by Clark Ashton Smith, however, I’ll keep on reading it. His tales have a rounded jewel-like self-containedness that is, artistically, a delight. … And Smith’s drawings are, I think, by far the best in the magazine. … In conclusion, Jules de Grandin is a pain in the neck.”
—WEIRD TALES, June 1934

Margaret St. Clair could be considered a peripheral member of the gang of writers commonly called “the Lovecraft Circle.” She met Clark Ashton Smith while a student at the University of California at Berkeley, and began corresponding with him as early as 1933. (Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith 208n1) St. Clair broke into the pulps after World War II, and her stories graced the pages of Weird Tales beginning in 1950, one of the last new voices to find a home at the magazine before its inevitable demise.

“The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles” (first published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Oct 1951), is one of Margaret St. Clair’s most famous stories. Her tale is inspired by and directly references Lord Dunsany’s own famous jocular fantasy “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon the Gnoles” (The Book of Wonder, 1912). Dunsany was a substantial influence on Lovecraft’s early fiction, and some later writers have worked to tie the Lovecraft Mythos more directly to Dunsany, such as “My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ and “Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro.

Margaret St. Clair is drawing directly from Dunsany here, pursuing her own homage to the British master of fantasy instead of trying to tie it into anything larger, expanding his Mythos but staying true to the spirit of the original story. There is something essential of Postwar America in the piece, a lightness of tone and a focus on money and its pursuit, with an ironic dark twist at the end reminiscent of Charles Addams’ The Addams Family and Robert Bloch’s light-hearted Mythos story “Philtre Tip” (1961).

Nuth looked on for a while from the corner of the house with a mild surprise on his face as he rubbed his chin, for the trick of the holes in the trees was new to him; then he stole nimbly away through the dreadful wood.
—Lord Dunsany, “How Nuth Would Have Practiced His Art Upon The Gnoles”

The gnoles were watching him through the holes they had bored in the trunks of trees; it is an artful custom of theirs to which the prime authority on gnoles attests.
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”

Dunsany has inspired any number of writers, Lovecraft not least among them. The error most writers make is trying to write like Dunsany, to capture something of his style. Like pasticheurs who ape the cosmetic aspects of Lovecraft’s prose and miss the deeper stylistic structures, themes, and philosophical underpinnings which make his fiction work. St. Clair here does not attempt pastiche, but homage: she pays reverence to Dunsany’s story and the details he gave, while writing her own, in her own voice.

Which is why this is one of the few “Dunsanian” stories which works.

It is not by any stretch of the imagination a story that Dunsany would have written, which is half the point. J. R. R. Tolkien once criticized Dunsany’s story “The Distressing Tale of Thangobrind the Jeweller”, also published in The Book of Wonder, lamenting:

Dunsany at his worst. Trying so hard for the shudder. But not for a moment making the tale ‘credible’ enough

Whether or not Dunsany was trying for a shudder or a chuckle, readers can decide for themselves. St. Clair by contrast was militantly angling for the lighter side, and the way in which she does so showcases, perhaps, how closely allied some of Lovecraft’s style of hinting was to Dunsany’s:

It was the parlor the gnole led him to. Mortensen’s eyes widened as he looked around it. There were whatnots in the corners, and cabinets of curiosities, and on the fretwork table an album with gilded hasps; who knows whose pictures were in it?
—Margaret St. Clair, “The Man Who Sold Rope To The Gnoles”

The juxtaposition of the Gnoles, strange and terrible as they are, having a very British or American-style parlor full of knickknacks and an album is the same sort of intimate contrast of “the fields we know” and the exotic and impossible which is such a hallmark of Dunsany’s early work. St. Clair’s leading question is in line with the unspoken horrors which Tolkien was so displeased with and which Lovecraft often used to such great effect: letting the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.

The gnoles, it seemed, would be regular customers; and after the gnoles, why should he not try the Gibbelins? They too must have a need for rope. (ibid.)

“The Hoard of the Gibbelins” immediately proceeds “Gnoles” in The Book of Wonder, and St. Clair’s references to it in this story could have been a step toward stitching together some of Dunsany’s standalone stories into something like a larger Mythos, though she never pursued such a design. It is something readers of Lovecraft take almost for granted—didn’t Lovecraft borrow elements from Dunsany, Arthur Machen, Robert W. Chambers (and Chambers himself from Ambrose Bierce)?

Certainly Margaret St. Clair, who was reading Weird Tales so early and so long, knew what she was doing.


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

“Meet Me on the Other Side” (2002) by Yvonne Navarro

Bethmoora,” Paul said. “And no, it’s not Israeli. Actually, the roots aren’t traceable to any specific language or dialect. But it’s still…foreign.”
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 141

Four million people asleep, dreaming perhaps. What worlds have they gone into? Whom have they met? But my thoughts are far off with Bethmoora in her loneliness, whose gates swing to and fro. To and fro they swing, and creak and creak in the wind, but no one hears them.
– Lord Dunsany, “Bethmoora” in A Dreamer’s Tales (1910)

A few years after the birth of the 21st century, Anglo-Irish aristocrat Lord Dunsany was inspired to create his own artificial mythology⁠—not a substitute national mythos a la J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, but something new and largely unprecedented. He combined the love of the commonplace with the desire for the exotic, and wrapped it together in language reminiscent of the King James Bible and ancient Grecian odes. Stories like “Idle Days on the Yann” directly inspired the dream-quests of Lovecraft’s Randolph Carter…and many others besides.

For Yvonne Navarro, the questers are Paul and Macy.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” is smarter than just an update of Dunsany’s old formula where seekers tired of mundane life look for the key of dreams, the path that leads Beyond the Fields We Know, escape from the here and the now. Like many a goof Mythos story, it mixes fact with fiction; Paul first finds reference to Bethmoora in that ancient and terrible tome the Encyclopedia Cthulhiana (1994) by Dan Harms. The questers too are not run down by everyday life—they’re thrill-seekers, adventurers, explorers in their own right.

Bethmoora was out there, all right. Just waiting to be rediscovered.
Revitalized.
And they were just the people to do it.
– Yvonne Navarro, “Meet Me on the Other Side” in The Children of Cthulhu 144

The discoveries and revelations when they come are almost perfunctory; old tropes dusted off and brought out because that’s the cycle of a Mythos story: Macy is the latest Lavinia, destined for a bit of cosmic miscegenation and birthing of eldritch abominations. Yet the response is different, and what makes the story.

Paul and Macy like a challenge.

Navarro is an old pro at genre fiction; she could easily have spun this story off into an entire novel. Urban explorers in the not-quite-abandoned city in the Dreamlands, flashbacks to old adventures, the slow peeling-of-the-onion, one layer of revelation coming at a time as things build inevitably to a climax—instead, she rips the bandaid off in a couple paragraphs of exposition. The backstory is something Mythos fans have read again and again for decades. “Meet Me on the Other Side” seeks to give the readers something new, and it delivers.

The benefit of having tropes and formula is that they’re building blocks, stepping stones and shortcuts that writers can use to go beyond—and one of the great failures of many Mythos writers is that they try to only ape Lovecraft or Dunsany, to regurgitate old ideas rather than to subvert expectations or push forward with fresh takes.

Navarro does make the leap. How many other writers have had their protagonists look on conceiving and birthing tentacled horrors and the inevitable end of the world as a challenge? It is absolutely a subversion of the typical Lovecraftian attitude that humans are so small in the grand scheme of things that there is little they can do…and not an unwelcome one. The Dreamlands stories do not all embrace or express Lovecraft’s cosmicism, nor need every echo of his work embrace nihilistic horror.

“Meet Me on the Other Side” was published in The Children of Cthulhu (2002), and has not been reprinted. Navarro’s other Lovecraftian fiction includes the novelization of the film Hellboy (2004) and “Feeding the Masses” (1992) and “WWRD” (2018).


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

“My Boat” (1976) by Joanna Russ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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