Editor Spotlight: Interview with Lynne Jamneck

Why a collection of contemporary Lovecraftian stories written by women? The evidence for answering this question is there for anyone to see; simply review the Table of Contents from Lovecraftian-inspired anthologies over the past number of years (and there are many) and it becomes evident that the bulk of contributions published in these collections were written by men. Here, some draw what seems to them an obvious conclusion—women simply don’t write Lovecraftian fiction. Of course, anyone who has consistently read both Lovecraftian and horror fiction in general will know that this is not the case.
—Lynne Jamneck, introduction to Dreams from the Witch House (2015) v-vi

Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969, Arkham House), the very first anthology specifically dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos, featured no stories by women. Nor did The Disciples of Cthulhu (1976, DAW), New Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1980, Arkham House), or many subsequent anthologies of Mythos fiction. While female authors, poets, editors, and artists have been far from absent from Lovecraftian fiction, their voices have not been equally heard by readers. The overall under-representation of women in Mythos anthologies over several decades must be understood to appreciate the background against which Lynne Jamneck was working when she was putting together one of the first all-women Mythos anthologies in 2015.

Dreams from the Witch House (Dark Regions Press) hit shelves the same year as two other Mythos anthologies of fiction by female authors: She Walks in Shadows (Innsmouth Free Press) and Cassilda’s Song (Chaosium). These three anthologies share few authors in common, testament to the number of talented women writing in the Mythos…and, perhaps, a notice to the editors of male-dominated Mythos anthologies that keep filling book after book with the same old names: there are women Mythos writers out there. Good ones. Why not publish them? 

Gothic Lovecraft (2016, Cycatrix Press) was co-edited by Lynne Jamneck & S. T. Joshi. This limited-edition anthology shares several of the female writers with Dreams from the Witch House, and is one of the better gender-balanced Lovecraftian anthologies, before considering its interesting theme and what the various authors do with it. The combination of talent and editorial insight makes for a solid Mythos anthology.

Lynne Jamneck has been kind enough to answer questions about herself as a Lovecraftian writer, and her experience as a Mythos editor on Dreams from the Witch House and Gothic Lovecraft:

How did you get into Lovecraft and the Mythos?

Lynne Jamneck: I can’t actually remember. I know that no-one came to me and said here’s someone you should be reading. All things considered, it was probably the result of discovering Stephen King as a teenager, and likely after reading King’s Danse Macabre. I’m sure he mentions Lovecraft in that as an influence and/or talks about him in some context. But I also didn’t immediately go out and look for Lovecraft’s writing. But it’s a name that, once you’ve seen it a few times in print, it sticks, you know?

Do you feel that being you (female, queer, non-American) has shaped your understanding of Lovecraft and approach to the Mythos?

LJ: Difficult to say, but probably, at least to a degree. Definitely the cultural and race aspects of both Lovecraft and his work. Having lived in South Africa during Apartheid and then through the country’s democratization has unquestionably shaped my perspective of the Other, including myself as Other. Funny though, I’ve never particularly found Lovecraft’s lack of female protagonists something that specifically put me off his work. There’s often overlap of the human experience regardless of gender. Maybe it’s because from a young age I’ve had to imagine my own experience, as queer, within the contexts of others due to a lack of representation. It’s more of a curiosity – in the same situations, how would women react to Lovecraftian terror? How do they experience it? 

Besides being an editor, you’ve written a good bit of Lovecraftian fiction yourself. What draws you to write it?

LJ: The lack of closure. I hate writing stories with resolved endings. It bothers me. I do it to annoy people who ignore the realities of life.

What made you decide to edit two anthologies of Mythos fiction?

LJ: With Dreams from the Witch House, it was definitely with the aim of exploring the female approach and reaction to cosmic horror, more so than because I wanted to make a point about including only women based on gender… Does that make sense? Maybe it’s the same thing. And it was an opportunity to work with writers who I believed would be able to present this in a unique manner, while at the same time possibly discovering writers I was unaware of and providing them with an opportunity to contribute to the dialogue. Gothic Lovecraft happened because of several fortuitous opportunities all connecting at the same time. It was an opportunity to explore the more lurid nature of Lovecraft’s universe and its echoes in the style of Gothic horror.

Were there any barriers to editing and publishing an anthology of Lovecraftian fiction written solely by women?

LJ: Not at all, at least not from Chris Morey at Dark Regions Press, who I initially approached with the idea. There were a few grumbles about people not being able to submit because they were male, which I didn’t pay much attention to, considering that male writers still seem to represent the larger percentage of authors included in horror anthologies.

You wrote in the introduction to Dreams from the Witch House “Perhaps it is simply that women write the Lovecraftian differently than many of their male counterparts traditionally have.” Do you think this is true historically—that writers like Joanna Russ and Ann K. Schwader have brought their own understanding to Lovecraftian fiction?

LJ: Definitely. This links back to what I mentioned previously about reaction and response to cosmic horror, to that sense of awe (in the traditional sense of the word) one experiences when confronted by something your mind can barely make sense of. It’s a curious combination of attraction and being repelled all at once. I know I’m generalizing, but I think there is definitely a difference in terms of how women would deal with such circumstances compared to men, at least based on the cosmic horror I’ve read. It’s interesting; the female perspective often comes across as more accepting of cosmic inevitability…there often appears to be some kind of recognition… It’s difficult to pinpoint.

Dreams from the Witch House, She Walks In Shadows, and Cassilda’s Song, all came out at about the same time in 2015. Were you aware these other anthologies of Mythos fiction were in the works while you were editing Dreams?

LJ: Only at a peripheral level, primarily from mentions in conversations with others. I knew that Witch House would have a different sensibility so I didn’t engage in comparisons. 

The first printing of Dreams contained “The Genesis Mausoleum”—which had been plagiarised from Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seed from the Sepulchre.” How did you discover the plagiarism? How did you handle it?

LJ: If I recall, someone who had read an advance copy told me but by then it was too late to remove it from the first print. I was livid. I made sure to let as many publishers as possible know about what the individual had done because I didn’t want any other editor to have to experience the same thing. It’s deplorable. There’s absolutely no excuse. 

You partnered with S. T. Joshi to edit Gothic Lovecraft. How would you describe your working relationship? What did both of you bring to the task?

LJ: S.T. is an extremely generous co-editor. I think we played off one another well. His knowledge and scholarship on Lovecraft is very broad. In turn, I wrote my MA in English Literature on Lovecraft and Poe (ten years ago, yikes!), which provided a good foundation for us to work from. From my end, I probably brought a bit more of a modern approach to some of Lovecraft’s ideas, informed by a queer/female perspective.

Both Dreams from the Witch House and Gothic Lovecraft contain a mix of well-known Lovecraftian authors and some that are less well known. Did you have specific writers in mind when starting both projects?

LJ: Yes. As I noted above, I knew from the outset that I wanted to work with Joyce Carol Oates (I’m always surprised to learn how few people realize Lovecraft is an influence in a decent amount of her work), Caitlin R. Kiernan, Gemma Files, Sonya Taaffe, Karen Heuler, and Lois Gresh because their work signified the sensibility I had in mind for the anthology.  Once I approached these authors, small but important signposts occurred in our conversations that directed me to additional writers (apart from those who submitted during the open call) and, well, the magic just happened.

Did you achieve what you wanted with Dreams from the Witch House?

LJ: Overall, yes. My aim was to collect and present stories that imbued readers with a sense of dread and unease not only while reading it, but that would linger and reoccur in the mind at unexpected moments. That’s what cosmic horror is to me. The inescapable.

Do you feel the Mythos scene has changed since Dreams and Gothic Lovecraft came out?

LJ: It’s difficult to comment on the scene as a whole and admittedly, I tend to seek out Lovecraftian/cosmic fiction that is less obvious in terms of using the typical Lovecraftian conventions/settings/monsters. There definitely still is a generous degree of retreading. I tend to look for fiction that, while recalling Lovecraft, presents the notion of cosmic horror in a new way; that doesn’t need Cthulhu or Nyarlathotep to instill the sense that we are atomic specks on a small rock in a very, very big universe we still know precious little about.  

In your thesis, “Tekeli-li! Disturbing Language in Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft” you talk about how the shoggoths have appropriated the word (‘tekeli-li) of the Elder Things—do you think writers today appropriate Lovecraft and his Mythos?

LJ: Absolutely, some more successfully than others. Among the rehashes there are fantastic narratives like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country that appropriates the mythos in the best way possible, all the while remaining quintessentially ‘Lovecraftian’, to produce a story that is super relevant today, right now. These and other stories (e.g., The Fisherman by John Langan) is the kind of legacy that Lovecraft’s work has, in its best form, evolved into today. 

While editors don’t play favorites—what’s your favorite story from Dreams and why?

LJ: Why do you do this to me! Sneaky-sneaky. I’ll meet you half-way and give you a story I love for a specific reason. I knew right away, after finishing “The Body Electric” by Lucy Brady that I wanted to include it in the anthology. The story is a super-great mesh of the Old and New coming together in a way that I found extremely relevant to a mainstream, modern cosmic horror sensibility. I find the idea of something cosmically threatening meshing with computer code more than a little bit unsettling, for reasons that should be 100% obvious. 

Thank you Lynne Jamneck for answering these questions, and I hope we see more from you in the future.

Aside from editorial laurels, Lynne Jamneck is a Lovecraftian writer in her own right with stories such as “The Paramount Importance of Pictures” (2006), “Azif” (2011), “In Bloom” (2016), “Oude Gouden” (2017), “We All Speak Black” (2018), and a scholar whose thesis “Tekeli-li! Disturbing Language in Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft” was published in Lovecraft Annual #6 (2012).

Dreams from the Witch House may be purchased direct from the publisher.

Gothic Lovecraft may also be purchased direct from the publisher.

Lynne Jamneck’s other works may be purchased through her Amazon author page.


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

“The Genesis Mausoleum” (2016) by Colleen Douglas

And right here—speaking of new writers and square deals—we want to mention something that causes editors no end of trouble and makes them proceed cautiously in dealing with people unknown to them. We’re talking now about plagiarism. We hold this to be not only the most despicable form of theft, but a heinous crime perpetuated by thieves against whom the editor has no defense.
—Edwin Baird, first editor of Weird Tales,
“What Editors Want: Why Manuscripts Go Home” (October 1923),
reprinted in The Thing’s Incredible! The Secret Origins of Weird Tales 270

Some Mythos writers have been claimed to construct their stories with all the care of a good hoax; some Mythos fans have gone so far as to fabricate library entries, advertisements, bookplates, realistic photos, and facsimile books and artifacts—most in good fun, with little intent to truly deceive. When L. Sprague de Camp created the Al Azif (Owlswick Press, 1973), it was with a nod and wink. H. P. Lovecraft, his contemporaries, and literary followers have used pseudonyms for both commercial and literary reasons, partially or wholly disguising their authorship but not with any attempt to defraud the reader or publisher.

From a literary perspective, there is a great deal of the Mythos which lends itself to recycling. Plots, characters, settings, sometimes even language can often end up in new stories, particularly in the form of pastiche. How many times have readers read Abdul Alhazred’s dread couplet? How many writers have borrowed wholesale bits and pieces of the stories of Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Clark Ashton Smith? As those first Mythos works move into the public domain, the line between original fiction and creative recycling of older material gets blurrier, as in the case of “Kanye West—Reanimator” (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky vs. “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon.

Yet both of those authors acknowledged their source, publicly. They transformed the material into a novel, original work. This has, unfortunately, not always been the case.

In 2015, Dark Regions Press crowdfunded Dreams From The Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horrorwhich hit its goals and entered print in 2016. Among the contents was a story by a new author: “The Genesis Mausoleum” by Colleen Douglas. This turned out, as at least one reviewer quickly noted, to actually be Clark Ashton Smith’s “The Seed from the Sepulcher” (Weird Tales Oct 1933). Ironically, far from being an obscure tale from one of Lovecraft’s contemporaries, “The Seed from the Sepulcher” is Smith’s most-anthologized story. Dark Regions Press admitted the error and published a new edition of the book in 2018, excising all mention of Colleen Douglas.

This has made the first edition, first printing relatively scarce (and, if online booksellers are not scrupulous in their ISBNs and descriptions, difficult to make out from its later edition, which has an identical cover and near-identical contents). A close examination of the text, however, has revealed something more complicated than someone re-typing Smith’s original story and then adding a new title and their own name to the manuscript.

The most obvious change is that Douglas substituted the names of the two protagonists: Smith’s James Falmer and Roderick Thone become Morgan Arpad and Marshal Tefere, respectively. A comparison of the text with the original Weird Tales publication shows more than that: a number of substantial changes, including re-wording, excisions, and changes in punctuation. Nothing to much change the plot, but substantial enough to make me wonder if these were all her own changes, or the reflection of a different textual tradition.

While we like to think of stories as being “a text,” the facts are rarely that simple. Writers often create drafts and synopses before the final manuscript, which may be submitted, rejected, revised, re-submitted, accepted, copy-edited, published, corrected, and re-published. In the pulps especially, stories may be cannibalized and re-written, so that that a single story may have many different textual variations—some of which might be relatively minor (misspellings or odd punctuation) and some of which might be substantial (an editor re-wrote the last paragraphs to change the ending).

Scott Connors in A Vintage from Atlantis: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith Vol. 3 gives a succinct overview of the textual history of “The Seed from the Sepulchre.” Clark Ashton Smith originally wrote a synopsis for the tale, and then a typescript which was submitted to Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror. This version was rejected, revised, re-submitted, and accepted. Editor Harry Bates copy-edited the typescript, but Strange Tales folded. Smith re-revised the tale and submitted it to Weird Tales, where it was rejected, revised, re-submitted, and eventually accepted and saw print. (During this process, Smith also showed the story to H. P. Lovecraft and gave a copy of the typescript to fan R. H. Barlow).

The October 1933 Weird Tales printing has been (as far as I have been able to determine) the basis for all subsequent publications until the time of A Vintage from Atlantis. Scott Connors had tracked down the typescripts and created a variorum of the different texts of “The Seed from the Sepulchre” in 2007, on which the Collected Fantasies version is based. Yet “The Genesis Mausoleum” differs from this version as well—so where did Colleen Douglas get the text for the story, and what exactly did she do to it?

Side-by-side comparison of “The Genesis Mausoleum” text with the 1933 Weird Tales text reveals a few things. Aside from the replacement of Falmer and Thone throughout, all of Smith’s original use of the word “Indian” have been replaced—once with “Amerindian,” once with “Incan,” and the rest with “guide” or “guides” as appropriate. A good chunk of Smith’s more obscure or flavorful vocabulary has been removed or replaced with simpler counterparts. A number of sentences and clauses have been removed, effectively “tightening up” the story. The most substantial example of this kind of economy:

“The Seed from the Sepulcher” (1933):

“My head! My head! he muttered. “There must be something in my brain, something that grows and spreads; I tell you, I can feel it there. I haven’t felt right at any time since I left the burial pit… my mind has been queer ever since. It must have been the spores of the ancient devil-plant… The spores have taken root… The thing is splitting my skull, going down into my brain—a plant that springs out of a human cranium—as if from a flower pot!”

“The Genesis Mausoleum” (2016):

“My head! My head!” he muttered. “There must be somthing in my brain, something that grows and spreads; I can feel it there taking root!”

Some of these changes require the addition of a few new words, as above where Douglas added “I can feel it there taking root!”, but this accounts for less than 1% of the total text. The story, as abridged and altered as it may be, is still almost pure Clark Ashton Smith.

The systematic nature of the changes become more obvious when comparing the 2016 and 1933 texts side by side: there is at least one word or punctuation mark changed in every single paragraph. While there are sentences as Smith wrote them, whole and untouched, the changes taken as a whole seem much more substantial than a simple 2016 editorial pass…but such changes might make sense if the person making the changes were attempting to disguise the story so that it would not be flagged by plagiarism software.

As for the actual textual source for “The Genesis Mausoleum,” there is reason to suspect that it was not the 1933 text (in any of its numerous anthology publications), but the readily-available e-text version on the Eldritch Dark website, titled “The Seed from the Sepulchre” (last edited 2009). This website hosts a good deal of Clark Ashton Smith’s fiction and poetry, but the texts are known to have numerous small issues with spelling, punctuation, and formatting. One of the characteristic “tells” of the Eldritch Dark text compared to the 1933 text is a small issue of formatting:

“The Seed from the Sepulcher” (1933):

Thone decided after a while, as he lay staring at his companion, that the latter’s taciturnity and moroseness were perhaps due to disappointment over his failure to find the treasure. It must have been that, together with some tropical infection working in the man’s blood. However, he admitted doubtfully to himself, it was not like Falmer to be disappointed or downcast under such circumstances.

Falmer did not speak again, but sat glaring before him as if he saw something invisible to others beyond the labyrinth of fire-touched boughs and lianas in which the whispering, stealthy darkness crouched. Somehow, there was a shadowy fear in his aspect. Thone continued to watch him, and saw that the Indians, impassive and cryptic, were also watching him, as if with some obscure expectancy. The riddle was too much for Thone, and he gave it up after a while, lapsing into restless, fever-turbulent slumber from which he awakened at intervals, to see the set face of Falmer, dimmer and more distorted each time with the slowly dying fire and the invading shadows.

“The Seed from the Sepulchre” (Eldritch Dark):

Thone decided after a while, as he lay staring at his companion, that the latter’s taciturnity and moroseness were perhaps due to disappointment over his failure to find the treasure. It must have been that, together with some tropical infection working in the man’s blood. However, he admitted doubtfully to himself, it was not like Falmer to be disappointed or downcast under such circumstances. Falmer did not speak again, but sat glaring before him as if he saw something invisible to others beyond the labyrinth of fire-touched boughs and lianas in which the whispering, stealthy darkness crouched. Somehow, there was a shadowy fear in his aspect. Thone continued to watch him, and saw that the Indians, impassive and cryptic, were also watching him, as if with some obscure expectancy. The riddle was too much for Thone, and he gave it up after a while, lapsing into restless, fever-turbulent slumber from which he awakened at intervals, to see the set face of Falmer, dimmer and more distorted each time with the slowly dying fire and the invading shadows.

“The Genesis Mausoleum” combines the two paragraphs into one, just as the Eldritch Dark text does. While this cannot be taken as definitive proof, it is at least suggestive.

The level of alteration in the story may also be another reason which the editor of Dreams From The Witch House didn’t catch it. While it’s true that nobody can read everything, there seems to have been a deliberate and not unskilled effort to deceive in the way the text was edited, possibly to fool online plagiarism detection tools.

The question remains: why?

Colleen Douglas‘, a graduate in Creative Writing, has a South American background;. She hails from the former British colony of Guyana and has lived in London for over two decades. She has always enjoyed works with some form of darkness, be it the gradual crreping or more blatantly obvious kind. Her interest in writing began at the age of 14, when she wrote her first horror story, after reading her father’s copy of Burial: The Manitou by Graham Masterton. She listens to rock music when writing fight scenes and haunts cafés when she begins and completes a project. The latter maybe a frame narrative habit, she cannot honestly account for the former. As a writer, she has always been drawn to the unconventional. She writes dark fantasy with elements of horror and science-fiction. She loves her eclectic disposition and storytelling diversity, as it places her in a unique atmosphere, with new challenges to conquer each time she writes.
—Author Biographies, Dreams From The Witch House (first edition)

If Colleen Douglas did get a BA in Creative Writing, as her author bio for her 2014 novel Origins claims, she knew well what she was doing both in editing the story and submitting it under a false title and her own name. It is not that she cannot write, if her 2014 interview and a brief excerpt on the inspiration of “The Genesis Mausoleum” are accurate:

When I was a young teen, I went to visit my grandmother, who lived in a village on the East Coast of the Demerara River. She lived in an old-style house, built on stilts near the main road which ran through the village. On late afternoons would sit on the stairs after my chores. It was one such afternoon that I spotted the flashes of red against the verdant green of the parapet on the opposite side of the road. I was fascinated and tried to discern the source, which turned out to be a green frog tied in a red bow. It proceeded to make its way up the stairs of a neighbour’s house and as it reached the top stair it disappeared. Almost instantly, there was awful screaming from within that house. I ran inside to tell my gran what I had seen. She told me to say nothing. That memory stayed with me. Later, I learned the woman in that house was an outsider who came to teach the children and had started an affair with the son of a “spiritualist” ( I use the term exceedingly loosely). At the time, I had no context, but in later years when I thought of what I’d seen, William Blake came to mind… “There are things known, and things unknown, and in between are the Doors.” It seemed to me that like the neighbor in my grandmother’s village, the characters in “The Genesis Mausoleum” had met such a “door.”
—Dreams From The Witch House (first edition) 340

The odd thing is, Clark Ashton Smith, the “victim” of the theft is long dead. While it isn’t clear if the 1933 copyright for “The Seed from the Sepulcher” was renewed (CASiana Enterprises, which handles Smith’s literary estate, have it copyrighted 1989), more than one story has already been written with it as an inspiration. As noted above, other Mythos stories have borrowed heavily and not been considered plagiarism, because the author added something new to them. A remixed or revision of the original text could have found honest acclaim for skill and creativity.

It is good such cases as “The Genesis Mausoleum” are so rare in Mythos fiction. The whole literary game involves a spirit of generosity and credit-where-credit is due. If we lose sight of that, what is left?

My thanks and appreciation to Scott Connors and Dave Goudsward for help on this post.


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

 

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” (2016) by Sonya Taaffe

So you’re not here to initiate me into the mysteries of the sea-mother whose faces rise and fall with the countless waves and her consort who makes the fish shoal as thick as cornfields in the fall?
—Sonya Taaffe, “All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” in Forget the Sleepless Shores 247

There is an anthology or two yet to be compiled about Innsmouth. One might be called Women of Innsmouth, exploring the less-trodden narrative paths of the daughters, sisters, wives, and mothers which go largely nameless and implied in Lovecraft’s tale, and include “Shadow Over Innsmouth” (1942) by Virginia Anderson, “Mail Order Bride” (1999) and “Objects From the Gilman-Waite Collection” (2003) by Ann K. Schwader, “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan, and “A Coven in Essex County” (2016) by J. M. Yales. Another, inspired more by the raid on Innsmouth and its aftermath, might be called The Innsmouth Diaspora, and include “The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys, and “The Gathering” (2017) by Brian Lumley.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” by Sonya Taffe would fit neatly into both.

There is a promise in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” that is unique in all of Lovecraft’s work, that at the end:

We shall swim out to that brooding reef in the sea and dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Shadow over Innsmouth”

It is the one ending where the Lovecraftian protagonist embraces their change, and looks forward to what is to come. When all that once terrified them becomes, in a new light, what they have always wanted. And maybe that change in perspective is itself just another of Lovecraft’s rhetorical devices, showing that even the mind is not spared and all that they were was lost…but for some folks, there is a real path forward there. For those who have hated themselves or been hated by others for what they were (or were not), for those who have desired a personal transformation to accompany their private realizations, it is a promising ending. Not necessarily a happy ending, but one that promises a posthuman future.

Sonya Taafe wrote the story about what happens when that promise can’t be fulfilled.

Can’t is a mean word, full of inevitability. There are a lot of can’ts that exist in our world, a lot of nevers. People don’t like that there are things that they can’t change, about themselves and the world around them. Limits to medical science, to money, to talent, to the imagination. Speculative fiction exists in part to answer those can’ts, to provide a haven for what if, a place where it’s okay to dream about a world where you can have the biological gender to match your identity, or can have children, or can fly through the sky to the beating of great wings…

…or where you can breathe water and go down into the dark abysses.

This is a story about those who can’t. Blame it on genetics, the legacy of old Innsmouth families that survived the raid growing diffuse with the generations. Real-world genetics as applied to Lovecraftian biology. Hopes and dreams crushed by terrible realities. It is wonderful in its way: bleak and unsparing as the love between distant cousins, tied together in the loose-knit way of diaspora, like seeking like, and yet feeling distant and alienated from their own kin. Because not everyone belongs. Not everyone can…and it isn’t their fault. Isn’t anyone’s fault.

It is not a universe that cares about what is fair, even for the lost and wandering descendants of Innsmouth. And it can only end one way:

[…]  I was asked that question once and all I could think of was the Odyssey, how the road of the dead is a sea-road, the sun’s road, past the streams of Ocean and the gates of Helios, and maybe the pattern would be clearer to someone outside my head.
“An Interview with Sonya Taaffe, Author, Editor, Durian-Lover” (4 Aug 2004)

For some, the sea calls her children home; for others, they go willingly into a different abyss…and that is, perhaps, still better than the dry land.

“All Our Salt-Bottled Hearts” was first published in Dreams from the Witch-House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror (2016) and republished in her collection Forget the Sleepless Shores (2018).


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

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes, the right thing to do is disobey orders.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

“Cthulhu’s Mother” (2015) by Kelda Crich

C’TTAR: Nobody said anything about his mother.
TERRY: Makes you think, eh?
—Kelda Crich, “Cthulhu’s Mother” in Dreams From the Witch House 168

That squelching sound you hear is Kelda Crich (Deborah Walker) driving the knife in. Mind the blood.

Sacred cows exist to be butchered, and the Cthulhu Mythos is no exception. There are entire anthologies devoted to humorous takes and takedowns of Lovecraft, his peers, heirs, and their varied collections, and the tradition of Lovecraftian humor is at least deserving of respect as the main branch of Lovecraftian horror it draws upon. Even Lovecraft would chime in on the subject:

Such writing, to be sure, has its place, as has the conventional or even whimsical or humorous ghost story where formalism or the author’s knowing wink removes the true sense of the morbidly unnatural; but these things are not the literature of cosmic fear in its purest sense.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

“Cthulhu’s Mother” is just such a knowing wink. The reader is treated to a juxtaposition of the seriousness of the Mythos and the informal mundanity of an (apparent) homemaker treating Cthulhu as an oversleeping teenager. The flash fiction story is written as a dialogue, the pompous language of the priest with its talk of strange aeons and sacred this-and-that running up hard against the much more informal and relaxed speech of the Mother. The result is a bit deflating—which is the whole point.

In the harsh light of day, a lot of the tropes of the Mythos seem ridiculous. Suspension of disbelief and appreciation of the subtler horrors requires a process of initiation: you have to read the stories, work your way up to the final, culminating revelations that Lovecraft and his heirs so liked to italicize. Yet like all good humor, the witticisms are only effective because of a bit of cutting insight. Crich can only put in the knife by knowing where to put it:

LENG PRIEST: Women aren’t usually part of the mythos. Except as virgin sacrifices, of course.
—Kelda Crich, “Cthulhu’s Mother” in Dreams From the Witch House 168

H. P. Lovecraft actually did toss a couple references to sacrificing young men and maidens into “The Shadow over Innsmouth” and “Out of the Aeons,” but the whole “virgin sacrifice” trope is, like a lot of the Cthulhu Mythos, a later growth. The broader part is somewhat more accurate: Lovecraft included fewer female characters (and female horrors) than explicitly male ones. Shub-Niggurath and Mother Dagon; Lavinia Whateley and Mamie Bishop, Keziah Mason, Marceline Bedard, T’la-Yub, the Ape Princess, and Aesnath Waite…along with a number of smaller roles. More than most readers might remember at first, but still a minority over all.

“Women aren’t usually part of the mythos.” could apply as well to women authors of Mythos stories, of course.

The mother of Cthulhu is never mentioned by Lovecraft in his fiction. It seems a curious omission, unless you realize that Lovecraft had little interest or desire in creating a sprawling, cohesive family tree of a pantheon to rival the Greco-Roman gods—that was the work of later hands, embellishing and restructuring the Mythos, establishing relationships, filling in “gaps” real of perceived. Hence the creation of Cthylla, the daughter of Cthulhu. The whole foundation of “Cthulhu’s Mother” is based on that possibility space: by first establishing that Cthulhu has a mother, and that this is a surprise to the cultists (Cthulhu having a mother is not a guarantee in every interpretation of the Mythos).

The pivot to commentary on women in the Mythos as a whole is Crich twisting the knife a little. A knowing wink to the reader about how much of Mythos fiction is built from tropes, expectations, and prejudices—not in the sense of bigotry, but in the sense of judging Mythos fiction by what has come before, and wanting more of the same rather than new voices and new takes. The readers of Lovecraftian fiction often know what they want, be it pastiche or cultists or an ominous pregnancy, and that slow fossilization of tropes, concepts, and authors is part of what has defined the Mythos over the last four decades, for good and bad.

Fans of Lovecraftian fiction need to be able to laugh at themselves and their works—and maybe reflect on what they read, and why. Because there is more to the Mythos than just the old favorites, fresh voices with fresh perspectives that deserve to be heard.

“Cthulhu’s Mother” was published in Dreams From the Witch House: Female Voice of Lovecraftian Horror (2015). Other Lovecraftian works include the poem “Stone City, Old as Immeasurable Time” (2011).


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