“The Day He Met Lovecraft” (1972) by Lew Shaw

Sir: As if it were yesterday, I remember meeting H. P. Lovecraft on the corner of Benefit Street and College Hill about noon on a very warm, sunny day.

College Hill is a rather steep climb, but on that day, a friend of mine and I, both attending Classical High at the time, were climbng up it oward the campus. At the base of College Hill on Canal Street, a new courthouse had been built. By taking the elevators to the fifth floor, we could have emerged on Benefit Street and eliminated the climb. However, despite the warm day, we walked.

As we got to Benefit Street, my friend greeted a passerby and introduced me to him. It was H. P. Lovecraft.

Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)

Memoirs and anecdotes of H. P. Lovecraft tend to come from familiar names: his correspondents, friends like Clifford & Muriel Eddy (The Gentleman from Angell Street), and his wife Sonia H. Greene (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft) most prominent among them. Even the few unfamiliar names like Dorothy Tilden Spoerl (“Cosmic Horror”) prove to have some connection to Lovecraft with a little digging. The very few memoirs that don’t have any provable connection to Lovecraft are thus a little suspect; they are extraordinary, and extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence to prove them.

The geography of Providence is real, and while Lovecraft often kept late hours, he was also more active during the warmer months and went out of doors to write in the sunlight. So at least some of the details given are plausible. Yet the most interesting part of Shaw’s account is the least believable:

On that sunny afternoon, H. P. Lovecraft told us the strange story he wrote about a hotel on Benefit Street, a building which stands there no longer.

Lovecraft had written a story about a true incident. At one time there was a young woman, a chambermaid in the hotel on Benefit Street, who left and married into wealth. Sometime afterward, she returned to visit the hotel as a guest. When she found herself discourteously treated and snubbed, she departed but put a “curse” on the hotel, on all those who had humiliated her, and on everything concerned with the hotel. In short order, ill luck apparently befell all and the hotel itself burned down. Furthermore, it had never been possible, somehow, for anyone to rebuild on the site. Even on the day H. P. Lovecraft told us the story, the place where the hotel had stood was still a vacant lot.

Lovecraft had finished the story and, without making his usual carbon copy, made only one draft, which he then mailed to the publisher. His story never appeared in print. It was lost in the mails.

Lewis Shaw, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” in Brown Alumni Monthly 72, No. 7 (Apr 1972)

Lovecraft is not known to have written any story about a cursed hotel, nor is there a mention of a Lew Shaw in his voluminous published letters. Scholars might be suspicious—an account of a lost Lovecraft story by an unfamiliar name, decades after Lovecraft’s death, during the early 70s when paperback publication was raising Lovecraft’s public profile? It sounds a bit too good to be true. S. T. Joshi certainly was not convinced:

There is much reason to suspect this entire account. In the first place, the story sounds like nothing Lovecraft would have written—the idea is hackneyed, and the protagonist would uncharacteristically have been a woman. Secondly, it is inconceivable that Lovecraft would have prepared a story without his usual two carbons. In the case of his essay on Roman architecture in late 1934, he wrote the piece by hand and sent it to Moe without typing it at all. Lew Shaw claims to have actually met Lovecraft on the street, in the company of a friend “who was interested in science-fiction” and knew Lovecraft; this might conceivably have been Kenneth Sterling, but Sterling never mentions this matter in either of his two memoirs. Shaw also claims to be of the Brown Class of 1941; but there is no one of that name in that class listed in the Brown University alumni directory. There is a Lewis A. Shaw in the Class of 1948, and a Lew Shaw who received a Ph.D. in 1975, but that is all. My feeling is that Lew Shaw (probably a pseudonym) is perpetrating a hoax.

S. T. Joshi, I Am Providence (2010) 2.1001

Joshi’s arguments are well-reasoned—but there are a few counter-arguments. While none of Lovecraft’s surviving letters mention a cursed hotel story, the account does not mention when the story was written or sent out; so it could conceivably fall into a gap in the correspondence, especially if the story was an early one or written for a revision client. A story set in Providence on Benefit St. isn’t out of the question either, “The Shunned House” was based on a real-life house (the Stephen Harris House, 135 Benefit Street). Likewise, while it would be uncharacteristic for Lovecraft to write a story with a woman protagonist, it was not unknown: “The Man of Stone” (1932) for Hazel Heald and “The Curse of Yig” (1929) for Zealia Bishop are primarily focused on female characters, or told in part from their perspectives, so it isn’t entirely out of the question. The postal service has lost many manuscripts and typescripts, so that by itself isn’t unbelievable either. The most obvious evidence of a hoax appears to be the absence of Lew Shaw himself…

Lewis Irwin Schwartz attended Classical High School in Providence, RI and graduated from Brown University in the class of 1941 (listed on page 72 of the Liber Brunensis for 1941). “Lew Shaw” was his stage name (“He Crashed The ‘Crewcuts’,” Brown Alumni Monthly Jan 1962). So, Joshi was correct that there was no “Lew Shaw” among the names in the Class of 1941, and that the name was a pseudonym—but didn’t have access to the bits of the puzzle that would show that Lew Shaw really did exist; those parts of the narrative at least match what we know of his background.

Joshi was also likely correct in identifying Shaw’s unnamed friend interested in science fiction as Kenneth Sterling. In Providence, Sterling attended Classical High School. They were both born in 1920, but Shaw was born in November, so he would probably have been a year behind Sterling. That gives us time as well: Sterling met Lovecraft in March 1935, and in the autumn of 1936 began attending Harvard, so the encounter with Lovecraft could only have happened in the summer of 1935 or 1936. Lovecraft doesn’t mention Shaw/Schwartz in the surviving letters to Kenneth Sterling, but on the other hand, those surviving passages are all excerpts, not complete letters, and there are gaps of months in the correspondence.

Kenneth Sterling wrote two memoirs about Lovecraft: “Lovecraft and Science” (1944) and “Caverns Measureless to Man” (1975). The first is slight, and doesn’t go into detail about how they met; the second is substantial, and more personal and biographical, going into considerable detail. Some of these jive with Shaw’s account:

During the academic year, excepting Christmas and spring recesses, the Science Club met weekly. That meant I had a schedule of one scientist a week—all, with two exceptions, from the Brown University faculty—and every time I walked up College Hill toward the Brown campus I visited Lovecraft for several hours. The total number of hours I conversed with him was huge.

Kenneth Sterling, “Caverns Measureless to Man” in Ave Atque Vale 406-407

This would have been the path Shaw describes. Sterling doesn’t mention the cursed hotel story; the one anecdote Sterling tells about bringing a friend to meet Lovecraft doesn’t jive either, since it was at a gathering in New York City. Again, this doesn’t immediately rule out Shaw’s story, but it doesn’t fully confirm it either. Shaw’s account is shifted from obvious hoax to doubtful…and there’s one final bit of evidence to consider: was there a hotel, cursed or not?

Newport Mercury, 21 Feb 1920

The Hotel Lorraine was on 18-28 Aborn Street, on the other side of the Providence River from Benefit Street, a geographic detail that Lovecraft would not have missed, but I’ve yet to find a notable hotel fire on Benefit St. during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the 18 Aborn St. lot was still vacant according to the 1935 Providence City Directory, which does jive with Shaw’s story. No mention of a curse has turned up yet, but a lot of century-old folklore probably wasn’t written down, much yet made it onto the internet, where searches about cursed hotels in Providence point toward the Biltmore (now The Graduate).

The question then becomes: is this an error with Shaw’s memory, or did he fabricate the whole anecdote? The former might be understandable: a couple of decades can erode the details of many memories, or add details that weren’t there before. If the latter, why? As far as is known, Shaw never attempted to pass the anecdote off to a paying magazine or publisher or profit from the supposed association. It was of the nature of a brief letter to the editor to a college alumni journal about a local writer with ties to the college whose posthumous star had lately been on the rise and who had ties to Brown (Lovecraft’s papers are archived at the university library). In the Feb 1972 issue of Brown Alumni Monthly there had been an article on “Lovecraftmania at Brown” which probably suggested the letter.

Without any further evidence in Lovecraft’s letters to support the idea that the meeting actually took place, “The Day He Met Lovecraft” will have to remain classified as somewhere between doubtful and apocryphal. We have no absolute evidence that Shaw/Schwartz actually met Lovecraft, as there are no details in the incident that can be independently corroborated with sources that weren’t already published at the time. As Joshi noted, the plot sounds fairly hackneyed and un-Lovecraftian; not something he would write for himself, even with the local angle.

However, we also cannot entirely rule out that Shaw did not meet Lovecraft; we know Sterling had brought at least one friend to meet Lovecraft according to his later memoir. The plot of the apocryphal tale sounds un-Lovecraftian, but Lovecraft was willing to bend his artistic scruples a bit for revision clients. Is a lost revision story plausible? There’s evidence to suggest Lovecraft revised more stories than saw print, such as “In the Gulf of N’Logh” (193?) and “Lair of Fungous Death” (193?) by Hazel Heald, and his letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop. By 1935, Lovecraft had largely stopped revising fiction, but it is possible he was talking about an earlier story—Lovecraft didn’t discuss much of his revised fiction that didn’t get published.

While Lovecraft’s wife is extraordinarily well documented by his letters, there are still little gaps in which things happened for which we have no record…and, perhaps, in which a clever fiction might be woven. Shaw’s account cannot be entirely ruled out, but neither can it be proved, unless more information comes to light.

Thanks and appreciation to Dave Goudsward for all of his help and assistance.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Henriette Ziegfeld

“The Blind Prince,” by Henriette Ziegfeld, is an excellent juvenile tale involving a fairy story. The only serious objection is the undercurrent of adult comment which flows through the narrative. Particularly cynical is the closing sentence: “‘And here’s Mother,’ finished poor Auntie with a sigh of relief.” The ordinary fairy stories told to children are bits of actual Teutonic mythology, and should be related with a grave, absolute simplicity and naivete. However, as a psychological study of the typical childish auditor, the sketch as a whole is highly meritorious. We are inclined to wonder at the possible meaning of the strange word “alright,” which appears more than once in Miss Ziegfeld’s tale. It is certainly no part of our language, and if it be a corruption of “all right,” we must say that we fail to perceive why the correct expression could not have been used.

“Department of Public Criticism,” The United Amateur 15, no. 2 (Sep 1915), in Collected Essays 1.72

This was, as far as can be determined, Lovecraft’s first notice of the existence of Henriette Ziegfeld (1894-1976), an amateur journalist from Columbus, Ohio. According to census data, Henriette was the child of immigrant parents, her father Dutch and mother German, and one of 11 children that survived to be recorded. “The Blind Prince” was published in The Woodbee, the amateur journal of the Woodbee Press Club of Columbus, which was associated with the faction of the United Amateur Press Association that H. P. Lovecraft had joined the previous year.

Amateur journalism appears to have been something of a family affair for the Zeigfelds. Lovecraft’s editorials and a letter mention her brothers Arthur (1901-1971; CE 1.267, 302, 307-8) and Florenz (1888-1951; CE 1.88, 124; LRKO 87); a 1920 convention report also lists as voting members their siblings Emelie (Emily), Hilda, Alma, Oscar, and Mrs. Ziegfeld—presumably their mother, Pauline Ziegfeld (1859-1929). A 1921 accounting of officers of the Woodbees lists Arthur F. Ziegfeld as President and his sister Henriette as the Secretary and Treasurer (CE 1.267).

By coincidence, Florenz Ziegfeld shared his name with the impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (1869-1932), who staged the famous revue Ziegfeld’s Follies (1906-1930s), which featured dozens of elaborately costumed showgirls (popularly called “Ziegfeld Girls”) in an elaborate musical and visual tableau. Inspired by the coincidence, in 1921 Arthur F. Ziegfeld began producing his own amateur journal titled Ziegfeld’s Follies.

The only surviving correspondence between the two is a single letter dated 6 Nov 1920 from Lovecraft to Ziegfeld, thanking the Woodbee Club for the generous donation of $25 toward the United Amateur Press Association’s fund for the publication of The United Amateur. Presumably, Henriette was acting as treasurer and had sent the money and an accompanying letter or note, so this was Lovecraft’s official thank-you. He also included an official notice in The United Amateur, which contains another relevant detail:

The Woodbee Club, now doubly prominent in amateurdom through its possession of both the Presidency and the Secretary-Treasurership, continues to be the most active of local bodies. On Labour Day, September 5, a successful corn roast was held on the Frazier Farm, whilst on September 24 the third annual rummage sale took place. Of the proceeds of the latter, $25.00 will be very generously donated to the Official Organ Fund in five-dollar instalments. The latest event is a farewell party to Miss Henriette Ziegfeld on the eve of her departure for India.

“News Notes,” The United Amateur 21, no. 1 (Sep 1921) in Collected Essays 1.300

Whether she replied is unknown; but possible—someone had to have informed Lovecraft that Henriette was leaving for a teaching mission in India, and in subsequent issues Lovecraft offered brief updates of her progress, so someone was keeping him appraised:

Miss Henriette Ziegfeld of the Woodbee Club on November 12 sailed for India, where she will be engaged in missionary work at Nagercoil, Travancore, in the southernmost part of the peninsula.

“News Notes,” The United Amateur 21, no. 2 (Nov 1921) in Collected Essays 1.303

On December 24th the Club received the pleasing news that Miss Henriette Ziegfeld had safely reached her destination in India, despite two threatened onslaughts of mal de mer during the voyage; onslaughts which were cleverly defeated by means of judicious pedestrianism.

“News Notes,” The United Amateur 21, no. 3 (Jan 1922) in Collected Essays 1.308
Henriette Ziegfeld’s 1921 passport photo
Henriette Ziegfeld in India, 1923, Concordia Historical Institute

That is the last word in Lovecraft’s amateur journalism essays or letters on Henriette Zeigfeld. No doubt a good example of many brief correspondences with women in various positions of amateur journalism, most of which do not survive.

The letter from Lovecraft to Henriette Ziegfeld has been published in Miscellaneous Letters (2022). While the date given on the letter is 1920, the notice of the $25 donation occurred in 1921—either the Woodbee Club made two such donations, or the letter is from 1921 and was misdated or mistranscribed.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Bernice Nette (Leach) Barlow

The present household consists of Barlow & his mother; & of a mother & son named Johnston, from Virginia, who keep house & attend to various duties.

H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 13 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 171

On the second of May 1934, a little after noon, H. P. Lovecraft stepped off the bus into the Florida afternoon sunshine. He was met there by Robert H. Barlow—a young correspondent whose letters had first reached him via Weird Tales three years earlier. Lovecraft was shocked to find his friend, with whom he would be staying for several weeks during his Florida vacation, to be only 16 years old.

No account is given, in letters or memoir, of Lovecraft meeting his teenage friend’s mother, Bernice Barlow. That is rather typical for everyone involved; she was there—cooking meals, driving the car, and no doubt a million other things—but during his two trips to DeLand in 1934 and 1935, Lovecraft’s letters focused on his adventures with Bobby Barlow, and R. H. Barlow’s memoirs of the time focus on Lovecraft. Little interest was given to the woman who quietly held everything together.

She was born Bernice Leach in Leavenworth, Kansas on 12 May 1884. Her father Adoniram (“Nide”) Bostwick Leach was a schoolteacher associated with the Leavenworth Business College; her mother Myrtilla Emlin (Parker) Leach appears to have been a homemaker. Bernice was the third of five children, with her older sisters Mabel (b. 1877) and Minnie (b. 1879), and younger brothers Parker (b. 1888) and Elwood (b. 1889). Absent any biographies, much of her life has to be pieced together with census data and newspaper accounts.

Bernice graduated high school and continued to live with her parents. At about age 20 or 21, she met Lt. Everett Darius Barlow (b. 1881), who was stationed at Fort Leavenworth. Newspaper accounts report on the visits of Everett and his brother Warren with the family. In 1905, it was announced that Everett and Bernice were engaged; on 21 December 1907, after he returned from his first stint in the Philippines, they were married. About ten months later, their son Everett Wayne Barlow was born, on 10 October 1908.

Life for a military wife is hard, and hardly documented. Census data shows that in the ensuing ten years the family moved from one posting to the next. When E. D. Barlow shipped out to France in April 1918, Bernice was heavily pregnant with their second child. She would be with relatives in Kansas when Robert Hayward Barlow was born on 18 May 1918. We can only guess at the unspoken decade between child—miscarriages, stillbirths, long absences from home might have all played their part.

When E. D. Barlow returned from the Great War, he was not the same. Without his medical records it can be difficult to get at the heart of the matter, but there are suggestions that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, which made family life difficult. Lovecraft, whose own mother had suffered a breakdown before her death in 1921, was sympathetic:

Glad to hear your father is somewhat improved, & hope he can arrange to make his gains permanent. These nervous breakdowns are no joke; no matter how much they may inconvenience & depress the bystanders, they are a damned sight worse for the victim himself.

H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 114-115

In 1934 when Bernice Barlow and H. P. Lovecraft met they had been living pillar-to-post for about twenty-six years. With E. D. Barlow’s retirement at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, the family ended up in rural Deland, Florida, far from family and friends. The house they built was named Dunrovin, and when Lovecraft arrived it was not quite finished. E. D. Barlow was up north, seeking medical treatment; Wayne Barlow had joined the army. So Bernice was on her own, with her precocious teenage son, and the Johnstons to help her out around the house. There is only one real anecdote about Lovecraft and Bernice from this period, but it bears repeating:

We had been in the habit of gathering blueberries beyond a shallow creek running between the swamp. Now HPL was no woodsman, as may be seen, and it was always perilous to trust his poor sight and lack of horse-sense. […] A series of recent rains had rendered the land very muddy, and the creek-channel had far overflowed, elaving a widespread thin puddle through which we had no choice but to wade. At the deeper creek had been placed a board to serve as bridge; and this was crossed without mishap. We spent some time gathering berries, but were through long before his dim eyes had attained even a half-basket. So we helped him filled it, and then all started home (Lovecraft, [Johnston], and myself). He lingered for possible other berried, and fearing just such a mishap, I stood uponthe makeshift bridge and called out its location to HPL.

[…] although I missed the scene myself (meeting him upstairs later) mother said he came in, soaking wet, and with most of his berries gone. In the God-awful rig he must have appeared very comical, thought it had also a tragic air about it. Promptly he said to mother, “I really must apologize!” She, amazed by this vision of a thoroughly wet HPL, said in surprise, “What for?”

He went on to explain he had been homeward bound when he came to the creek. Not seeing the board, he was abruptly pitched up to his neck into cold water. The berries were flung up and upset, most of them going on the slight current.

R. H. Barlow, “Memories of Lovecraft (1934)” in O Fortunate Floridian 406-407

The first visit lasted until 21 June 1934, about six weeks. Once in St. Augustine, Lovecraft posted a card to his gracious host:

It surely seems odd, after so many weeks of enjoyment of the Villa Barlovia’s hospitality, to be absent from the familiar table’s west end, & to forego the evening promenades on the moonlit Cassia road! I scarcely need reiterate how keen a delight my protracted visit gave me—& how profoundly I hope that I did not occasion any gortesque extremes of inconvenience with my wild hours & habitual absences from scnes of constructive endeavour.

H. P. Lovecraft to Bernice Barlow, postmarked 21 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 140

This is, as far as survives, the only piece of correspondence directly between Lovecraft and Bernice Barlow. No doubt any important news would have been shared through Lovecraft’s continuing correspondence with her son; there is a note on the envelope of one letter (“No news—Mother” O Fortunate Floridian 351) which may or may not be intended for HPL. Yet for the most part, Lovecraft seems to have quickly and firmly settled in as a family friend. On his 1935 visit, Lovecraft met Everett and Wayne Barlow and got along well with both of them.

Lovecraft did not write about the invisible stresses in the family—between husband and wife, father and son. R. H. Barlow would leave Florida for Kansas and the Kansas City Art Institute; Bernice and Everett would divorce in 1941. Yet Bernice was a survivor…she would continue to rebuild her life, and would eventually outlive her younger son. Perhaps in her waning years, back in Florida, she would remember the strange man who came to stay with them, how he would talk and the incident with the berries…and the card he sent, which she had kept for many years before it was donated with so many other documents of Lovecraft’s life to the John Hay Library.

The full text of Lovecraft’s postcard to Bernice Barlow is published in O Fortunate Floridian.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Deeper Cut: Spirits of Bigotry Past & Present: H. P. Lovecraft & J. K. Rowling

The main points of concern for the journalists seem to be the same as those of the bloggers; first and foremost they feel the need to express that Rowling is wrong and transphobic, but they also want to present their views on the debate of whether liking Harry Potter is still justifiable. The separating the art from the artist discussion is a crucial part of the majority of these articles. Several of the authors mention other controversial artists such as H.P. Lovecraft and analyse how these situations were handled.

Fleur Heiltjes, Alive but #Cancelled? The Public’s Response to the Controversial Author (2021) 31

In 1967, Roland Barthes published his essay “La Mort de l’Auteur” (“The Death of the Author”). This influential work of literary criticism examined the relationship between the author and their work; interest in a work often extends to interest in the author, and what we know about the author informs how we read a work. Many literary critics of H. P. Lovecraft have read elements from his own life in his fiction. Sometimes these readings are supported by primary evidence. Lovecraft himself noted in his letters that real-world personal experiences and places he had visited sometimes informed his fiction. For example:

[…] am now on the 22nd manuscript page of a long short story to be called “The Dunwich Horror”. The action takes place amongst the wild domed hills of the upper Miskatonic Valley, far northwest of Arkham, & is based on several old New England legends—one of which I heard only last month during my sojourn in Wilbraham.

H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 4 Aug 1928, Essential Solitude 1.151

While evidence from Lovecraft’s letters has led to deeper insight into his life, his writing process, and his fiction, their wider publication beginning with the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft from Arkham House also led to wider awareness of his personal prejudices. While many readers would have already picked up touches of early 20th-century prejudices in Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry, Lovecraft’s growing reputation as a writer, this reputation always cared with it the unpleasant reality that Lovecraft was racist, an antisemite, homophobic, etc. As his fame spread and his works entered the public domain, that same public—which has grown ever more diverse—has re-evaluated both Lovecraft and his work.

Lovecraft’s prejudices have become part of his legend. For many, they have become his defining feature: a popular image that is easy to turn to caricature and resistant to nuance and complexity. H. P. Lovecraft has become the ghost of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the readers of today. Unfortunately, the present is haunted by its own bigoted spirits.

Prejudice has become almost as indelible a part of the legend of British writer J. K. Rowling over the last few years as Lovecraft—and this has drawn comparison between the two. However, there are many important differences between the two writers, both in their specific circumstances and how they are read and interpreted by today’s audiences. Comparing two bigoted authors is fundamentally different from comparing apples to oranges…because to torture a metaphor, we have to take into account not just the fruit, but the trees they grow from, the orchard, the terroir: the historical context in which a living author and a dead one lived and worked.

H. P. Lovecraft, Spirit of a Bigoted Past

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a pulp writer and amateur journalist. Born into a moderately affluent white family in Providence, Rhode Island, a series of deaths in the family greatly reduced its fortunes. Lacking strong financial acumen or prospects, and with limited education, Lovecraft lived much of his life in genteel poverty, largely unknown outside of a small but ardent circle of admirers of pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, where many of his stories have published. After his death, his friends and fans continued to promote and publish his work, to expand and elaborate on the shared universe known as the Cthulhu Mythos he had devised, and to study his life and letters. Lovecraft’s fame is largely posthumous: he died a relatively obscure pulp author and reaped few financial rewards from his work. Awareness of his racism began to grow in the public consciousness after the publication of his Selected Letters (1965-1976) and especially Lovecraft: A Biography (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp, which not only emphasized his prejudices but contained the first widespread publication of the poem “On the Creation of Niggers,” which along with his childhood pet, the black cat Nigger-man, has become part of his legend, and usually the first things cited as examples of his racism.

It is not unusual that a white man in the early 20th century United States of America might be anti-immigrant, racist, homophobic, and misogynist: this was the era of the second Ku Klux Klan, Jim Crow, and the rise of the Nazi party. Women did not have the right to vote in the US until 18 August 1920, two days before Lovecraft’s thirtieth birthday. Lovecraft would never live to see the Holocaust, the Stonewall Riots, or the Civil Rights Movement. His prejudices reflect the period he lived in, and were widespread.

That is an explanation, not an excuse. Lovecraft may not have known better as a child or young adult, but as he entered his twenties he learned not everyone shared his bigotry. Relatively early in his writing career, Lovecraft received public pushback against his prejudices (“Not All Anglo-Saxons” (1911) by Herbert O’Hara Molineux, “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson). After this censure, Lovecraft did not assay such public prejudice again, but kept his comments largely to himself and his close friends and family. While Lovecraft’s fiction shows the definite prejudices of his period, what we know of Lovecraft’s own prejudices comes almost exclusively from his thousands of letters and the memoirs of his friends and family, including his wife Sonia (The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis, Her Letters To Lovecraft: Sonia H. Greene). Through his letters, we see Lovecraft at his best and worst, in his travels (Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Chinatown, Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Harlem) and in those he met and interacted with (Deeper Cut: Elsa Gidlow & Les Mouches Fantastiques, Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite).

While Lovecraft’s views on race were not static throughout his life, and were strongly influenced by his travels and meeting different people, he never overcame the prejudices of his earlier life.

Lovecraft’s influence on contemporary genre fiction cannot be overstated. He was a friend and encouragement to Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, August Derleth, Donald A. Wollheim, James Blish, and many more; his fiction, down to the most obscure fragment, has been published and republished. The shared universe he created and encouraged has been enthusiastically embraced by fans, writers, artists, and game designers for decades, all the more so since his fiction has entered the public domain. Despite Lovecraft’s personal prejudices, his work has been embraced by and re-imagined by generations of women, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ folk. Many works today specifically address the complex issues of Lovecraft’s personal prejudices (“The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin)—Lovecraft has become a public domain character as much as Cthulhu, the spirit of a bigoted past who continues to haunt the present.

J. K. Rowling, Spirit of a Bigoted Present

Joanne Rowling (1965- ) was born Yate, Gloucestershire, in the United Kingdom. Born into a fairly stolid middle-class background, she matriculated to university, graduated with a B.A. in French from the University of Exeter. Her first young adult novel Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997) reached widespread acclaim on publication, would be followed by more books, a series of critical and commercially successful films, merchandise, licensing deals, etc. Millions of copies of her books sold, and Rowling herself became a multimillionaire. With newfound wealth came both adulation and expectations: Rowling came under the public spotlight, her social media presence the subject of constant attention and criticism.

In the late 2010s, Rowling’s opposition to gender transition and transgender individuals have come increasingly to public attention and received commensurate criticism. (“JK Rowling criticised over ‘transphobic’ tweet about menstruation”). While Rowling attempted to justify her views with a self-serving essay (“J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues”), she has neither apologized nor corrected her views. Instead, Rowling doubled down on her prejudices and has used her wealth and public position to continue to discriminate against transgender individuals and support anti-trans activists (GLAAD Accountability Project: J. K. Rowling).

Rowling’s social media presence and the huge footprint of the Harry Potter media empire have led to swift and tremendous public awareness of her anti-trans prejudices. Individual friends and public figures, including those involved with the Harry Potter films, have variously distanced themselves from her views (Every Harry Potter actor who’s spoken out against J.K. Rowling) or supported her despite her prejudices (Ralph Fiennes defends JK Rowling). Her wealth and, perhaps, her ego have largely sheltered her from consequences: despite substantial efforts to publicly educate her on the realities of the discrimination that transgender people face, Rowling has doubled down on her beliefs in the face of criticism and opposition—and there isn’t much anyone can do about it.

There is a timing aspect to the rapid death spiral of Rowling’s reputation: her initial displays of transphobia have come at a time of increased awareness and vocal support from transgender people in the face of a rising of toxic political rhetoric against transgender people, especially in the United Kingdom (The Growth of the Anti-Transgender Movement in the United Kingdom, The Roots of Anti-Trans Feminism in the U.K.), but also internationally. The backlash against and support for Rowling and her transphobia have a strong partisan bias, even if that puts Rowling into proximity with individuals she herself wouldn’t want to be associated with (Putin cites J.K. Rowling as proof of West’s ‘cancel culture’) and her prejudices have had real-world consequences (How J. K. Rowling helped kill a proposed American LGBTQ civil rights law).

That’s the explanation, not an excuse. The terminal online nature of media in the 2010s and 2020s has made Rowling’s tweets a feeding frenzy of takes, trolls, and political posturing for those eager to stake out their space in the culture wars, but when you cut through the clickbait ledes, the facts are pretty straightforward. LGBTQ+ people in the United Kingdom had been fighting for and winning equal rights throughout Rowling’s life (Timeline of LGBT history in the United Kingdom). This isn’t a case where Rowling was raised a bigot in a terminally transphobic society and is repeating popular prejudices. Rowling’s transphobia is a marginal, reactionary pushback against legal recognition and protections that have taken LGBTQ folks decades of organized effort to secure. Instead of supporting the rights of women or working to protect the transgender fans of the Harry Potter series who have quite literally enriched her, Rowling has become one of the gilded bogeymen of Twitter, using her wealth and privilege to promote her agenda (If J. K. Rowling’s Women’s Shelter Turns Away Trans Women, Then It Isn’t Helping Women).


When taken into comparison like that, the differences between Lovecraft and Rowling may seem a bit stark—but context is important. Lovecraft doesn’t get a pass just because his bigotry was commonplace while Rowling’s is marginal—but the fact that they had such different life experiences and reactions when confronted on their prejudice is in large part due to the 80-odd years between Lovecraft’s death and Rowling first hitting “like” on a transphobe’s tweet. We can only imagine what Lovecraft might have been like had he had Twitter, but we cannot know. As it is, lacking a broad public forum or the desire to push his prejudices in such a way, Lovecraft’s prejudices were kept mostly private until his death. The spotlight never shown on Lovecraft in that way during his life, except for the very briefest of moments; by the time fans could seriously react to his bigotry, Lovecraft was dead.

Rowling has the benefit of many things that never came to Lovecraft during his life—a university education, fame & fortune during her lifetime—but not a filter. Fame comes at its own cost, both in terms of loss of privacy and dealing with toxic fandom, but twenty-plus years since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit shelves, any sympathy for the online hate Rowling deals with has to be balanced against the fact that she’s had decades to manage and shape her media presence. When Rowling responded to allegations in 2020, she made a clear statement that she was not playing the victim:

I haven’t written this essay in the hope that anybody will get out a violin for me, not even a teeny-weeny one. I’m extraordinarily fortunate; I’m a survivor, certainly not a victim. I’ve only mentioned my past because, like every other human being on this planet, I have a complex backstory, which shapes my fears, my interests and my opinions. I never forget that inner complexity when I’m creating a fictional character and I certainly never forget it when it comes to trans people.

All I’m asking – all I want – is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the many millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.

J.K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues

Rowling went on to oppose Scotland’s Gender Recognition Reform bill; apparently she supports every trans person’s right to live in any way that feels authentic and comfortable them as long as it doesn’t involve the right for trans women to call themselves women. Which is a step further than Lovecraft went. While it may be damning with faint praise to say Lovecraft never joined the KKK or participated in a lynching, the only physical act of discrimination Lovecraft’s ever performed was riding on a segregated bus. Then again, Lovecraft had no money. We have no idea what he would have done, if had the means to do it. Discrimination is a matter of means and opportunity as much as motivation.

Which is why comparison between H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling sort of falls apart. Both were and are prejudiced, respectively. Their exact prejudices are different (transgender identities was not understood in the same way during Lovecraft’s lifetime, see Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft), as were the forms their discrimination took, and the arc of their reputation. It was shaped by the context of their lives and careers; if Lovecraft had been successful, perhaps he would have faced more backlash during his lifetime, if Rowling had died in poverty and Harry Potter kept alive by an ardent circle of fans, her tweets only published decades later, we wouldn’t be hearing about her transphobia until then. For want a nail, the main thing that Rowling and Lovecraft have in common, if you ignore all their circumstances, is that they were both bigoted.

So why compare Lovecraft & Rowling? Why not Rowling & Ernest Hemingway? In truth, Rowling has been compared to many other bigoted authors—and as with Lovecraft, the comparisons tend to be pretty superficial. When you get down to the level of what exactly people believed and how they expressed their discrimination, the divide between historical racism and contemporary racism, between letters in amateur journals which get seen by tens of people months later versus tweets that are seen by thousands of people in seconds—it gets difficult to make meaningful comparisons.

J. K. Rowling is no H. P. Lovecraft, and vice versa. Nor do we read them quite the same.

How We Read Bigoted Authors

Barthe’s “death of the author” is metaphorical as much as it is literal: while it might be polite to wait until the author is dead and can no longer comment on their work, in a broader perspective the point of “death of the author” is that the reader can engage with the text without knowing anything about the author, or without reference to the author’s comments and other writings outside of the text. For writers that might still have a pulse and some brain activity, it might be better to think of it in terms of “ignoring the author”—not with the intention of trying to enjoy an author with disagreeable views, but as a technique of literary criticism.

What readers generally can’t ignore is what they themselves bring to the text. Readers today don’t need to know anything about H. P. Lovecraft to figure out he was influenced by early 20th century views of race in stories like “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family.” However, readers today will also generally have very different interpretations of the concentration camps in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” than someone reading the story in the 1920s and 30s, and are more likely to draw comparisons with the Nazis and the Holocaust than with the enemy alien camps of World War I which Lovecraft was familiar with (“The Doom That Came to Innsmouth” (1999) by Brian McNaughton & “The Litany of Earth” (2014) by Ruthanna Emrys).

This is part of the reason Lovecraft’s reputation as a racist is so pronounced: if someone had a black cat named after a racial slur for Black people today, as Lovecraft did as a child, it would be so far beyond the pale of what is acceptable today that there would be accurately labeled as a terrible bigot. At the time when Lovecraft owned the cat, that wasn’t an uncommon name for a black pet. It is still an example of Lovecraft’s racism, but in context it is more accurately seen as part of a wider cultural trend in a society that is much more openly racist than today’s, not Lovecraft being uniquely racist. Which is generally why historical context is important when looking at dead authors and their fiction: looking at the past solely through the lens of contemporary experience often leads to misunderstanding and misrepresentation (presentism).

Given how prevalent racism, antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, etc. were in the past, it should come as no surprise that there were a lot of bigoted authors. With the combination of social progress and increases in scientific knowledge, it’s not surprising that there are a lot of authors who end up on the wrong side of history—and many of them, like Lovecraft, were fairly conservative or reactionary even with respect to the politics and social views of their own time. Even then, humans tend to be rather complex: for example, Lovecraft was a bigot in terms of race, but he was progressive in other areas such as opposition to censorship, support for women writers, and New Deal-style socialism.

Not that you would really know that from reading his stories. Those are aspects of Lovecraft’s personality and life that never found expression in his fiction. Readers who approach Lovecraft’s fiction with a “death of the author” perspective would be totally ignorant of anything except what is in the stories themselves. Which is why “death of the author” is a tool in the literary criticism toolbox, but not the only technique or approach that can or should be used to evaluate a work or body of work.

In practice, most readers bring something of their understanding of an author to the work when they read it. After the revelation of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s child sexual abuse, for instance, it can be very difficult not to look at her fiction through the lens of this knowledge (“Doom of the Thrice-Cursed” (1997) by Marion Zimmer Bradley). Readers aware of Lovecraft’s racism will tend to read his stories with an eye toward finding expressions of his racism in those stories—and they will find it, although their understanding may be imperfect without a broader understanding of the historical context of Lovecraft’s life and how and when and why he wrote the story.

Before the internet, it might have been said that posterity would probably not be kind to J. K. Rowling…but things are faster now, and Rowling is a bigger target. It took decades after he was dead for Lovecraft to become big enough to attract serious scholarship and opprobrium for his racism Fans, literary critics, and scholars were already combing over Rowling’s every word before she liked her first tweet. Unlike Lovecraft, Rowling is alive as the vultures pick her literary bones and the scholars root through her tweets like diviners making note of lesions on a bird’s liver. Rowling has a voice to push back against her critics in a way that Lovecraft can’t. She also has a possibility of redemption that Lovecraft will never have.

Cancel Culture

Minus some required reading for school or work, nobody has to read H. P. Lovecraft or J. K. Rowling. Their literary status is due to popularity, but there’s no compulsion behind it in the sense of the Nazis handing out copies of Mein Kampf. If you don’t want to read about Cthulhu or Harry Potter…why not change the channel, return the library book, block the tweets? Read or watch or listen to something else. Don’t give then your precious attention or your dollars.

For all the hyperbole that pundits, politicians, and celebrities have given to “cancel culture” and the terrible consequences that folks can suffer if held to account for being racist or sexist or anything else, the fundamental idea behind it is essentially laissez faire: you the consumer get to decide what to buy, what to read, etc. While social media can drum up semi-organized boycotts, share information about the intended subject of ostracism, or rally signatures for specific projects, for most people it’s a decision as simple, straightforward, and personal as putting an aluminum can in the recycling bin instead of the trash. The individual effort involved is generally minimal. It is only the net effect of thousands of potential customers en masse exercising their right to not buy what someone else is selling that has real impact on the bottom line.

In this way, cancel culture combines two effective techniques: social ostracism and economic impact. The massed body of the public cannot issue fines or enforce social mores, but they can refuse to buy Rowling’s books or ignore her until she either goes away or decides to act right. The latter is, perhaps, what a lot of people hope for: that an author who has said something stupid, bigoted, and offensive will realize the error of their ways, learn better, apologize, grow as a person, and make amends. Many fans want the moral values of the creator to match their content; there is a collective guilt that can be experienced in continuing to enjoy and support an author with bigoted views.

After all, the dollars, euros, and pounds spent on Harry Potter books, films, games, and merchandise are ultimately ending up in J. K. Rowling’s pocket…which she will then dip into to continue to support anti-LGBTQ+ legislation, or fun shelters that discriminate against trans women, or a shiny new smartphone to tweet with. Most readers don’t like to be complicit in supporting those authors who actively support their oppressors. When they are made aware of it, anyway.

The major problem of cancel culture is that the economic impact often has minimal visible effect, at least not for individuals as wealthy as J. K. Rowling is. She has already made her money, she’s already won. If nobody spent a penny on any Harry Potteriana for the rest of her life and she was stuck self-publishing verbose crime thrillers, she’s probably still set for life. Rowling’s wealth insulates her from pretty much any sort of collective economic action. If readers hope Rowling will one day shift her views and come to accept that trans women are women, it probably won’t be because there’s an economic impetus driving the decision.

H. P. Lovecraft cannot be canceled.

If nobody buys Lovecraft’s books, the text of them is still free on the internet. Lovecraft, for the most part, is in the public domain. Like it or not, he belongs to all of us now, and there is no way to stop people from using Lovecraft’s texts and his Mythos in pretty much any way they see fit. If the economic carrot-and-stick of cancel culture doesn’t work on Rowling because she’s too rich to care, it doesn’t work on Lovecraft because he’s broke and dead. No matter what nasty names Lovecraft is called on the internet, his moldering bones in Swan Point Cemetery, Providence, R.I. won’t rotate even a quarter-turn. No amount of urine on his grave can change his mind.

At least none of the money is going to benefit the prejudices Lovecraft had while he was alive.

The Two-Headed Ghost

Lovecraft cannot be canceled, but his legend continues—and his position in the literary firmament continues to be evaluated, debated, argued, as when his image was removed from the World Fantasy Award in 2015. Which is as it should be. While many readers identify strongly with works of fiction, the characters inside, and values they espouse—while many readers may idolize the creators of their favorite book, comic, game, or film—at the end of the day, H. P. Lovecraft and J. K. Rowling are just people. Very flawed, very complex human beings, not secular saints, and deserving of praise and sanction in response to their actions the same as anybody else.

Bigotry is a two-headed ghost. Janus-like, it stares into both the past and the future. Readers cannot escape the reality of historical racism, they can only choose how they themselves will approach the material and authors. If you as a reader cannot see past H. P. Lovecraft as anything but a bigot, cannot stand to read him, don’t want to hear about historical context or anything else that smacks of an excuse for racism, homophobia, antisemitism, etc.

Then don’t read him. Nobody can force you to. That’s your right. If you ever change your mind, Lovecraft will still be there. The dead cannot be hurt, only forgotten and misremembered.

Readers can also choose not to endorse and support bigots in the present. Unlike Lovecraft, J. K. Rowling can still change, can still look to the future—and she can already see, in the scholarly articles, the heartfelt fan letters, the opportunistic political punditry—what her legacy is shaping up to be. People may or may not read Harry Potter in a hundred years, but the question Rowling faces is how she herself will be remembered.

As long as an author breathes, they have a chance to change, to grow, to redeem themselves, at least a little. Lovecraft didn’t live long enough to do that; perhaps most don’t. The tide of history is relentless, and no one can see perfectly either where it came from or where it is going…nor force anyone else to change their minds. In the final analysis, all readers are faced with Barthes’ choice: how do they choose to approach the authors and their work? Because it is up to the readers to decide who they read, and how and why they read them. Whether to ignore their faults, or to accept them.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Her Telegram To Lovecraft: Wilhelmina Beatrice “Bess” Houdini

It seems that once Houdini was in Cairo with his wife on a non-professional pleasure trip, when his Arab guide became involved in a street fight with another Arab.

H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Feb 1924, Selected Letters 1.311-312

In January, 1910, I had finished a professional engagement in England and signed a contract for a tour of Australian theatres. A liberal time being allowed for the trip, I determined to make the most of it in the sort of travel which chiefly interests me; so accompanied by my wife I drifted pleasantly down the Continent and embarked at Marseilles on the P. & O. Steamer Malwa, bound for Port Said. From that point I proposed to visit the principal historical localities of lower Egypt before leaving finally for Australia.

H. P. Lovecraft, “Under the Pyramids”

Most readers overlook the fact that Bess Houdini was briefly a Lovecraftian character—even if mentioned only briefly and in passing. Yet she was there from the beginning of Lovecraft’s relationship with Harry Houdini, and she would be there at the end, her final word a brief telegram.

Wilhelmina Beatrice Rahner was born in Brooklyn in 1876, the daughter of Roman Catholic German immigrants. Her father died when she was young, and she worked at a brother-in-law’s tailor shop, then as a seamstress in a traveling circus, where she joined a song-and-dance act called the Floral Sisters with the name Bess Raymond. In 1894, stage magician Theodore “Dash” Hardeen of the Brothers Houdini act, arranged a blind date with two of the sisters for himself and his brother Erich…better known by his stage name, Harry Houdini. After a very brief courtship, Bess and Harry would be married. From then on, she would be his partner and assistant in his magical act as well as his wife (The Secret Life of Houdini 30-31).

Bess was no doubt Houdini’s assistant when H. P. Lovecraft first saw the Handcuff King on stage circa 1898, and she would have been on stage 27 years later when Howard and Sonia Lovecraft saw them at the Hippodrome in New York in 1925 (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.238). For thirty-one years she had accompanied Harry Houdini around the world and been his wife and partner. By 1925, their act would have been as smoothly polished as it would ever be, and Lovecraft appears to have appreciated it. While there is no account of H. P. Lovecraft meeting Bess at this time, he did meet her husband at the show and visited the Houdini house in New York (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.249). If Bess was present at this meeting, Lovecraft makes no mention of it.

In October 1926, the Houdinis performed at the Providence Opera House. Lovecraft attended the show, and afterward had a meal with both Harry Houdini and Bess. It may well have been their only meeting. Muriel Eddy provided an account of the trip:

When Harry Houdini came to Providence for the last time, we made up a theater party and attended the performance. It was a big production, and his wife Beatrice assisted him in his magic tricks and illusions. A niece, Julia, also was an assistant on the stage.

After the show, Houdini suggested that we go to lunch at a Waldorf restaurant. It was very late, and at the midnight hour we sat at a long table together, with Beatrice Houdini’s pet parrot perched demurely on her shoulder. Lovecraft got quite a kick out of watching the parrot…named Lori…sip tea from a spoon and nibble daintly at toast held by his polite mistress!

I remember that H.P. L. ordered half a cantalope filled with vanilla ice cream, and a cup of coffee. He was in great spirits and bubbled over with good humor, talking a blue streak about everything under the sun. Harry Houdini gazed at him admiringly. I am sure he liked H.P.L. as much as almost everybody did who had a chance to study and know him.

Muriel E. Eddy, The Gentleman from Angell Street 21-22

Whether Lovecraft and Bess exchanged more than two words to each other, we may never know—but there was another consequence of that night:

Shortly after meeting with Eddy and Lovecraft, Bess was stricken with a non-specific form of poisoning, probably from food. Houdini immediately summoned Sophie Rosenblatt, a nurse who had worked fro the family previously; but by Friday, October 7, Bess’s condition had deteriorated so badly that Houdini stayed up all night comforting her. She improved a little the next day, which was the last day of the run, so Houdini arranged for her and Sophie to leave straight for Albany, the next tour stop, while he took a lat night train to New York, where he had meetings scheduled for Sunday.

William Kalush & Harry Sloman, The Secret Life of Houdini 502

At some point in October after he had met with the Houdinis, Lovecraft must have written to Harry Houdini in Detroit about a proposed work C. M. Eddy, Jr. and himself had been working on, The Cancer of Superstition. The answer, however, did not come via letter, not did it come from Harry Houdini himself.




Telegram from Bess Houdini to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 30 Oct 1926, Miscellaneous Letters 168

During his final days, Harry Houdini was still traveling and performing, but he was suffering from a broken ankle and acute appendicitis, which would swiftly prove fatal. Harry Houdini would die on 31 October 1926. As his widow, Bess was now in charge of Harry Houdini’s remaining business, which included unfinished work by C. M. Eddy, Jr.:

I haven’t yet attempted the task of convincing the Houdini heirs that the world needs his posthumous collected works in the best Georgian manner, but honest Eddy has gone the length of trying to collect the jack on an article for which the departed did not give his final & conclusive authorization, & which I consequently advised him not to write at the time! Well–I hope he gets it, for otherwise I shan’t feel justified in collecting the price–in typing labour–of my aid on the text in question.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 17 Nov 1926, Letters to James F. Morton 122

There is no record of Bess’s response, but given that nothing further appears to have come of this, it is clear that with Harry Houdini gone she declined to pursue the project. Lovecraft does not mention any further communication with Bess Houdini; while it is possible he sent her a note of condolence on her husband’s death, or that they exchanged a final note on The Cancer of Superstition, if that is the case those letters do not survive. All we have is a single telegram, the text of which is reproduced in Lovecraft’s Miscellaneous Letters.

For more on Harry Houdini’s relationship with H. P. Lovecraft, see Deeper Cut: Houdini & Weird Tales.

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

Deep Cuts in a Lovecraftian Vein uses Amazon Associate links. As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

Howard, Mon Amour (2018) by Martine Chifflot

Sonia (Assise en train d’écrire, elle s’interrompt, levant la tête et s’exprimant a voix haute):
Howard est mort.
Quelle tristesse!

Et moi, qui ne suis plus tout à fait sa veuve…
Divorcée, remariée, je ne peux plus être sa veuve officielle.
Sonia (Sitting down to write, she interrupts herself, raises her head and speaks out loud):
Howard is dead.
What sadness!

And I, who am not quite his widow anymore…
Divorced, remarried, I can no longer be his widow, officially.
Howard, Mon Amour 19English translation
Scene 1

Ever since the publication of The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) by Sonia H. Davis in various recensions, there has been great interest in the marriage of H. P. Lovecraft, and in his wife Sonia Haft Greene, who remarried in 1936 and became Sonia H. Davis. As the story of their marriage has unfolded in letters and memoirs, the narrative possibilities have struck several writers. Richard Lupoff included Sonia as a character in Lovecraft’s Book (1985), later expanded or restored as Marblehead (2015), to give one prominent example. Readers and scholars who have traced the story of their meeting, their work on the Rainbow, their collaborations “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923), “Four O’Clock” (1949), Alcestis: A Play (1985), and “European Glimpses” (1988), and their final separation all speak to a dramatic narrative—some might say a tragedy, for all human lives tend toward tragedy at the end.

Howard, Mon Amour is a short drama in 23 scenes by Martine Chifflot. The scene is 1946; their mutual friend Wheeler Dryden has informed Sonia of the death of H. P. Lovecraft, nearly a decade prior. The two had fallen out of touch, and apparently contact had been broken prior to her third and final marriage to Nathaniel A. Davis. Alone while writing, the phantom of Lovecraft appears…whether his ghost, or a hallucination born of her grief, never quite clear. It doesn’t really matter.

Howard: Je suis ici, Sonia; je resterai aussi longtemps que tu vivras. Les choses là-bas ne sont pas tout à fait semblables à ce que l’on raconte, à ce que, moi-même, j’en ai dit et je ne suis pas autorisé à en parler mais il a été permis que je revienne… pour toi, comme pour t’accompagner, comme pour te remercier.Howard: I am here, Sonia; I will stay as long as you live. Things down there are not quite the same as we are told, as I myself have said, and I am not allowed to talk about them, but I have been allowed to come back… for you, as if to accompany you, as if to thank you.
Howard, Mon Amour 22English translation
Scene 2

The French found an early appreciation for Lovecraft, and not just his fiction but many of his letters and associated biographical materials have been translated into French, including Sonia’s memoir. “Un mari nommé H.P.L.” (“A Husband Named H.P.L.” in Lovecraft (Robert Laffront, 1991) appears to have been Chifflot’s main source of data on the marriage, and Chifflot’s drama is fairly accurate to the facts. She may put words into her character’s mouths, but the events play out largely in accordance with Sonia’s account of the marriage, warts and all; the drama of the scenes is a little heightened in the telling, the events more emotional and detailed, but also emotionally true to how Sonia told them herself.

Tante Lilian (ou Sonia L’imitant), apres un moment de silence):
Chère Sonia, nous vous remercions mais cela est tout bonnement impossible.

Voyez-vous, Howard et nous-mêmes sommes des Phillips et nous ne pouvons envisager que l’épouse de Howard doive traviller pour vivre à Providence. Cela constitue une sort de déshonneur que nouse ne pouvons tolérer pour Howard et pour nous-mêmes.

Non. L’épouse de Howard Phillips Lovecraft no peut entretenir son ménage, ni ses tantes. C’est le devoir du mari de subvenir aux besoins familiaux et Howard a joué de malchance à cet égard. Nous connaissons, tout comme vous, les grandes qualités de Howard et nouse aimerions vous voir réunis mais cela ne se peut dans de telles conditions. Vous nous entretiendriez et nous seriouns à votre charge. Ce serait une honte pour nous malgré votre générosité. Cela ne se peut, chère Madame… et nous devrons tous souffrir en silence.
Aunt Lilian (or Sonia imitating her), after a moment of silence):
Dear Sonia, we thank you but this is simply impossible.

You see, we and Howard are Phillips and we cannot contemplate Howard’s wife having to work to live in Providence. This is a dishonor that we cannot tolerate for Howard and ourselves.

No. The wife of Howard Phillips Lovecraft cannot support his household, nor his aunts. It is the husband’s duty to provide for his family, and Howard has been unfortunate in this regard. We know, as you do, the great qualities of Howard and we would like to see you reunited, but it is not possible under these conditions. You would be supporting us and we would be in your charge. It would be a shame for us despite your generosity. It cannot be, dear Madame… and we must all suffer in silence.
Howard, Mon Amour 64English translation
Scene 16

Most of the scenes are monologues, recalling some incident from their married lives; the more interesting scenes are dialogues, where Howard and Sonia actually have a bit of back-and-forth; other characters like Howard’s aunts Lillian and Annie have brief roles, and as suggested, could simply be retold by the actress playing Sonia doing their parts. It is a work meant to be not just read, but acted out; Chifflot herself has performed on stage in the role of Sonia:

Howard, Mon Amour. Scène 10. Sebastien Ciesielski et Martine Chifflot

For all the research that went in Howard, Mon Amour, there are a few idiosyncrasies that go beyond the facts. Little attention is given to Sonia’s Jewish identity or how Howard’s prejudices and antisemitism spiked during his stressful stay in New York, for example. There is an odd moment where Sonia believes that Howard’s correspondence with his revision client Zealia Bishop caused a “cooling” (refroidissement) of their relationship; and another where Sonia is said to dislike Crowley (in reality, Sonia and Aleister Crowley never met, it’s all an internet hoax). Which can all be explained as dramatic license rather than error or intentional misdirection. These are things that might stand out to a Lovecraft scholar with a penchant for pedantry more than a Lovecraft fan.

The emotional core of the work is true, however. In many ways, Sonia did find herself haunted by Lovecraft’s ghost for the rest of her life; his legacy clung to her as people asked her about the marriage, and many of her surviving letters survive because they are about Howard or addressed to his friends like August Derleth and Samuel Loveman. In Howard, Mon Amour, Sonia seems to accept that…and that she still loves him. Which, perhaps, is true. It was never love that got in the way of their relationship, but everything else around them: her health, his aunts, their finances, a difference in wants and needs, what they were and were not willing to do.

Howard, Mon Amour by Martine Chifflot was published in 2018 by L’Aigle Botté, and has been performed on stage as “Lovecraft, Mon Amour.” An English translation by Claude Antony has been announced:

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

Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Chinatown

Chinatown [in San Francisco] must still be a fascinating & mysterious place, even though old-timers say it is merely a pallid echo of the original pre-1906 quarter. The only Chinatowns I’ve seen are those in Prov., Boston, & N.Y.—the latter the most picturesque of the three.

H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 14 Mar 1935, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price 170

For his first thirty years, H. P. Lovecraft seldom left his native Providence, Rhode Island. All of his travels, his visits with friends, and to ethnic enclaves in different cities—as well as his marriage and all of his professionally-published fiction—happened in the last seventeen years of his life. The vast majority of character growth, exposure to different cultures, and challenges to Lovecraft’s prejudices happened in the final third of his existence. Which is why it is interesting to see what Lovecraft writes about various ethnic neighborhoods and enclaves he visited, including the few Chinatowns he visited on his travels.

Despite the name, “Chinatown” is a bit of a misnomer. In the 19th century, especially after the end of slavery, employers in the United States began to import cheap labor from Asia—including the Empire of China, Japan, the British Raj and other central and south Asian countries, Southeast Asian nations like Formosa (Taiwan) and Siam (Thailand), and the Pacific Islands. All of these “Asians” came to the United States at different times and places—and because of their different appearance, cultures, religions, language, and perceived economic competition, faced tremendous discrimination and even violence from the American citizens. Like many other immigrants, they tended to be poor and poorly paid, and settled in the cheapest or least desired neighborhoods and ghettoes—which in time came to include Asian-owned shops, restaurants, and other businesses; as well as schools, cemeteries, temples, and cultural centers or benevolent societies—and became, in effect, small organic communities operating alongside and within larger and predominantly white American cities.

While commonly called “Chinatowns” because the bulk of the immigrant population and their Asian-American descendants were perceived to be Chinese, these communities were not usually homogenous, but included many different nationalities and ethnicities, and the “flavor” of a given Chinatown could vary considerably from city-to-city—even the preferred dialect of the Chinese language and the style of Americanized Chinese food would often reflect the province(s) where the majority of the immigrants had emigrated from.

Like other ethnic and linguistic minorities in the United States, Asian immigrants faced social, economic, and legal discrimination. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the Immigration Act of 1917 (the “Asiatic Barred Zone Act”) effectively halted immigration from Asia to the United States for decades; legal rules like Lum vRice, 275 U.S. 78 (1927) confirmed Asian-Americans as “colored” for the purposes of race laws, often prevented mixed-race marriages, segregating where Asian-Americans could work, live, and go to school. The Massie Case in 1932 highlights how prejudice against Asians could be deadly violent—and how socially accepted such violence was.

In the face of restricted immigration and ongoing discrimination, many Chinatowns shrank or ceased to exist altogether, the populations moving on—yet others thrived and grew, and still exist today, the largest existing both as vibrant communities still absorbing generations of immigrants and perhaps increasingly as tourist attractions. Yet in their endurance, they made their mark on American culture as well; the Asian architecture and festivals and the rags-to-riches stories of hardworking Asian immigrants struggling for their success became a part of the mythos of their cities. There was a dark side to this mythos too: Yellow Menace fears of enemy aliens, criminal gangs, opium dens, and tong wars filled the newspapers, dime novels, and eventually the pulps. It was not without reason that Robert E. Howard made his weird detective Steve Harrison’s beat Chinatown—the Texan was playing to the expectations of a pulp audience that had been raised to think of these ethnic enclaves in terms of stereotypes and prejudice.

Lovecraft, who visited Chinatowns in the 1920s and 30s, was aware of all of this—and his comments have to be understood as an outsider, a tourist who wants a glimpse of the exotic East he had long held in his imagination but never actually had the chance to visit.

Chinatown was as close to Asia as Lovecraft would ever get.


There were two small Chinatowns in Providence, Rhode Island: a small one centered around Burrill St. that burned down in 1906, and a newer one centered on Empire Street which was torn down in 1951 as the city extended the street and expanded it, not coincidentally razing the old buildings and displacing the small community there. While Lovecraft could have theoretically visited both during his lifetime, he was no doubt more familiar with the small community centered around Empire St.—as Empire intersects with Westminster St., where the Chin Lee Co. First Class Chop Sooey and American Restaurant stood, an establishment where Lovecraft and his aunt sometimes took their meals:

Christmas, thank Pegāna, was decently mild—& I succeeded in dragging my elder aunt down town for the firs ttime in a year & a half—to partake of an old-time Christmas feast with plum pudding and all, at the hospitable refctory of that staunch upholder of ancient English tradition—Chin Lee, Esq., (a very distant eastern connexion—phonetically at least—of the main Virginia line of Stratford & Arlington!) who so liberally stocked you with chow mein at our little pre-Maxfield supper last June.

H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 27 Dec 1929, Letters to James F. Morton 212

“Chin Lee” (Chin Dong Goon) was the proprietor of the restaurant that was in or near the Providence Chinatown; an early menu survives showing largely American and French dishes, but this was probably for white customers. His daughter Grace Lee Boggs reports she was born in the family apartment above that restaurant.

Regrettably, Lovecraft doesn’t offer any more descriptive details of the Providence Chinatown, although he must have passed through or near it several times during his life. Being so relatively small both geographically and in terms of population, it probably lacked much in the way of distinctive architecture or tourist draw, although one can easily imagine Lovecraft taking out-of-towners for a stroll down Empire St. and making the turn at Westminster St., in case they wanted some chow mein or chop suey.


We threaded the colonial lanes of Beacon Hill, chapel, Old Corner, Old South Church, old State House, Faneuil Hall, Paul Revere’s house, (buily 1676) birthplace of Mortonius’ grandfather, old North Church, hellish colonial byways of the North End, (the scene of “Pickman’s Model”—I was heartbroken to find the actual alley & house of the tale utterly demolished; a whole crooked line of buildings having been torn down) & the relatively commonplace Chinatown along Beach St.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 17 Jul 1927, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.609

Boston was an international port for centuries, but the sprinkling of Chinese and other Asian nationals only appears to have formed an ethnic enclave in the 1870s, after a number of immigrants were brought over from California to Massachusetts as cheap labor. Despite discrimination, the Boston Chinatown grew and flourished, and was the largest New England Chinatown outside of New York during Lovecraft’s lifetime—and the only one in the region to survive to the present day.

It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first visited Boston’s Chinatown. Amateur journalism brought him more contacts and spurred his first adult travels outside of Providence, to Boston to meet up with fellow amateurs, and to listen to Lord Dunsany at Copley Plaza in 1919. Lovecraft might well have seen the Boston Chinatown on any visit in the 1920s; the 1927 letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark discusses a tour of Boston where Lovecraft showed Donald Wandrei the sights, so he must have been familiar with it sometime before that.

As with Providence’s Chinatown, Lovecraft doesn’t give any real description. “Prosaic” probably implies that it was not markedly touristy at the time, and that the architecture mostly reflected Western styles. The paifang archway that now stands at the head of Beach St. as a symbolic entrance wasn’t erected until 1982, so in Lovecraft’s time the distinction would have been made in non-English signage, the greater number of Asian faces on the street, the sounds of people speaking Taishanese, and the smell of Chinese food wafting out from a thousand kitchens.

New York

Klei, now at the head of a triangular expedition with the same personnel as Saturday’s, proceeded to lead us into the slums; with “Chinatown” as an ulterior objective. […] And then Chinatown appeared. Here cleanliness reigned, for certain enterprising rubberneck-wagon owners use it as a sort of seat of local colour–they have fake opium joints which they point out as the real thing. Doyers St., the main thoroughfare, is narrow and crooked. It is fascinatingly Oriental, and Loveman rhapsodised on the evil faces of the natives. Probably it was only the usual low-caste physiognomy of the coolie type which so thrilled him–but bless me! Let the poets find thrills where they can.

H. P. Lovecraft to the Molo, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 97

The Manhattan Chinatown in New York City was, and remains, the largest Asian ethnic enclave on the East Coast of the United States. On his first trip to New York in 1922, Lovecraft’s friend Rheinhart Kleiner took him and fellow visitor Samuel Loveman on a tour of many points of interest in the city. Already, as Lovecraft noted, the area was becoming picaresque and beginning to cater to tourists, though it was still a thriving community and probably more Asian people in one place than Lovecraft had seen before.

It was a place that Lovecraft would revisit at least a few times during his stay in New York (1924-1926), and possibly he would pass by or close to it several times in later years depending on his route through the city. In his letters, he noted his second visit:

Another thing I visited that day was Chinatown—Mott and Dyer Sts., branching off from sordid Chatham Square. This I had seen after dark two years ago with Kleiner and Loveman; but I now beheld it for the first time by day. There are some interesting Oriental balconies, carved and gilded, but so few that one’s expectations are invariably disappointed.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.141

At this point, Lovecraft would have probably already seen the Chinatowns in Providence and Boston, so he might have had his hopes up that New York—bigger and older than both—might have more of an exotic flavor. In this, like other Chinatowns, Lovecraft would be somewhat disappointed: these were working, living communities, not the romantic transplanted neighborhoods from Asian cities or dangerous ghettoes he might have imagined or hoped for:

Kirk, Leeds, & I once explored the N.Y. Chinatown during a tong war, when there were pairs of policemen stationed around at short intervals apart to prevent trouble—but we couldn’t scare up a single flying bullet.

H. P. Lovecraft to E. Hoffmann Price, 14 Mar 1935, Letters to E. Hoffmann Price 170

“Tongs” or benevolent societies were mutual assistance organizations that initially grew up in the West Coast Chinatowns such as San Francisco, and from there spread out or encouraged the formation of new groups. Despite the laudable stated purpose of helping its members—many Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th century would have been relatively poor, spoken little or no English, and lacked many contacts to secure housing or handle immigration legalities—some of these groups became infamous for their association with criminal enterprises such as gambling, protection rackets, human trafficking, and sex work, and for the vicious fighting that could break out between rival organizations.

These “tong wars,” especially those in San Francisco, grabbed national headlines in the late 19th century, but diminished in scale and intensity in the 20th century. “Tong War” headlines appear in 1924 and 1925, and newspapers were prone to sensationalize the prospect of a bloody gang fight, so it isn’t clear when Lovecraft went on this particular expedition.

New York Daily News, 19 Oct 1924

There is some indication that Lovecraft got used to Chinatown, and passed through it or near it semi-regularly as needs dictated:

After leaving [Samuel Loveman] at his airy domicile & starting on a walk over Brooklyn Bridge & up through Chinatown to the north, Kirk & I decided to surprise Loveman with a birthday gift–as which, after much deliberation, we chose a bookcase, plus several cheap decorative accessories to brighten & domesticate his room.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.237-8

During the period of his stay in New York, Lovecraft walked much of the city and became, in his own lights, a tour guide, particularly to its surviving Colonial buildings. When Donald Wandrei was to visit New York in 1927, Lovecraft made sure he didn’t miss out on the New York Chinatown either, giving him instructions much as he would for Harlem:

Chinatown (walk along Park Row from City Hall, turn into Mott St. at Chatham Sq.)

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 128

Lovecraft had left New York in 1926 and moved back to Providence, which is probably the only reason why he didn’t show Wandrei the Manhattan Chinatown himself, as he did with the Boston Chinatown. Lovecraft still passed through New York periodically the rest of his life, and it was on one of these trips when Frank “Sonny” Belknap Long, Jr. wanted to visit some sites in New York, he turned to “Grandpa Theobald” to lead him:

We later followed a route of quaint sights–old chuchyards, waterfront areas, Chinatown, Five Points, &c.–which Sonny had compiled from a series of newspaper articles, & on which he needed his old Grandpas’ expert guidance. I could steer him without difficulty, & we coerced everything on the programme.

H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 2-3 Jul 1931, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.930

Other Chinatowns

There were other Chinatowns in cities Lovecraft visited like Cleveland, Miami, New Orleans, and Philadelphia, some of which still exist, others of which are no more. It does not appear that Lovecraft visited these ethnic enclaves, or if he did, chose not to make any reference to them in his surviving letters. Most of these, like Providence’s own quarter, would have been relatively small and easy to overlook, especially as Lovecraft was often traveling quickly and on the cheap.

Chinatown & Lovecraft’s Asiaphobia

Lovecraft was both a white supremacist and came to hate New York City and its large immigrant population. There are many comments in his letters regarding his particular animosity towards New York and its immigrant population, an animosity that informed several stories written or conceived while he wrote in the story such as “He,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” and “The Call of Cthulhu.” Readers of passages like the following might wonder if Lovecraft’s animosity toward the city were inspired in any way by Chinatown or its inhabitants:

You can’t imagine the horror of being engulfed in a maelstrom of repulsive Orientals whose aberrant physiogonomies & rat-like temperaments grate more & more on the sensibilities of an aesthetically impressionable person. New York represents such a stupidenous ruin & decay–such a hideous replacement of virile & sound-heritaged stock by whipped, cringing, furtive dregs & offscourings–that I don’t see how anyone can live long in it without sickening.

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 84

The fact is, Lovecraft was not predominantly talking about the Chinese or Japanese or Korean immigrants of New York: he was talking about Jews. While it seems weird to us today to talk about Jews as “Orientals,” the stereotypes of the early 20th century often considered Jewish peoples to have immigrated from, or be descended from people who immigrated from, the Near East, Middle East, or Central Asia (particularly with regards to the Khazar hypothesis, which Lovecraft seems to have picked up in New York). This identification is made much more explicit in other letters, where Lovecraft directly references the supposed Asian origins of Jews—and the best that can be said about those prejudices is that Lovecraft wasn’t being uniquely horrible, but was reflecting a very common way of “othering” Jewish immigrants and Jewish-Americans.

The odd thing about the Chinatowns and other ethnic enclaves that Lovecraft encountered on his travels is that he generally did not despise their existence. He accepted the existence of non-Anglo-American cultures, and even stated his admiration for what little he knew of Chinese and Japanese culture in many letters; he also vociferously didn’t want those cultures to spread or intrude on what he saw as white American culture. A self-contained enclave was preferable to the great American Melting Pot. While he never said it in such words, Lovecraft didn’t mind the Chinese in Chinatown anymore than he would have minded the Chinese in China.

That was part of Lovecraft’s rationale for his hatred of New York—the idea that it had once been an American city and that now all the (particularly Jewish) immigrants had come in and taken over; so that it had effectively ceased to be American by his standards (although a glance at the census might have enlightened Lovecraft to the fact that there weren’t quite as many Jews in New York as he thought). In a later letter, Lovecraft wrote:

I freely admitted that the nascent replacement-culture of New York might have as much potential intrinsic merit as any other culture, & that the centuries might conceivably refine & develop it into something of unique excellence–as interesting & non-repugnant to us as Chinese or Saracenic culture.

H. P. Lovecraft to Donald A. Wollheim, 9 Jul 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 308

Lovecraft’s experience of Chinese culture was limited to what he had read in books, the art he had seen in museums, and his brief trips to Chinatowns in Providence, Boston, and New York; he was as much a tourist as any diner in a Chinese restaurant in the United States, and the “exotic” atmosphere of carved and gilded balconies, delicate Japanese prints, and the music of bamboo flutes was his main expectation. In many ways, this expectation of the exotic remains in American culture, from the decor at American Chinese restaurants to the busloads of tourists who visit the various Chinatowns around the country—or, if that is insufficiently real, perhaps to the China Pavilion at Epcot Center in Orlando.

What needs to be understood about Lovecraft’s racism and his experience with Chinatowns is that this was by and large the limit of his experience with Asian immigrants and Asian-Americans. Social and legal discrimination in the United States had helped segregate Asian peoples in these few cities, and in these few parts of cities—his experience, and his prejudices, were not unique. Lovecraft’s asiaphobia and asiaphilia were informed by and reflected the culture he was a part of.

Those same stereotypes still inform aspects of our experiences today, even though the Asiatic Barred Zone Act has long been abolished. Many of us are still tourists with notions of an exotic Orient that reduces the real people and cultures, fascinating in their history and variety, down to a handful of set roles and expectations. Lovecraft’s Chinatown visits neither cured nor exacerbated his prejudices; he neither feared and hated the Asian-Americans he met nor fell in love with them. At best, these visits expanded his world, at least a little…and perhaps in our own lives, if we visit Chinatown, we might appreciate them for what they are and have been, instead of being disappointed that they don’t live up to the fantasies of opium dens and tong wars that were dated even when Lovecraft strolled those streets.

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

Deeper Cut: The Two Masters: H. P. Lovecraft, J. R. R. Tolkien, & Racism in Fantasy

Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937) and John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973) were contemporary denizens of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and each would become a critical influence on the development of fantasy fiction throughout the latter half of the 20th century and continuing on into the current day. Their influence on each other was, as far as can be determined, practically nonexistent: there is no record of any correspondence between them, and while Tolkien did publish poetry and essays during Lovecraft’s lifetime, his first major work of fiction The Hobbit was not published until September 1937—and Lovecraft died in March of that year. Tolkien had more opportunity to read Lovecraft, whose work was reprinted in the United Kingdom in the Not At Night series, the British edition of Weird Tales, and increasingly in other hardback and paperback anthologies following Lovecraft’s death, but there is no direct indication from Tolkien’s correspondence that he did.

Even if the two did not directly interact with each other on a personal level or read one another’s works, they were both white heterosexual cisgender men who were born and grew up in the Anglosphere—and so it should not come as any great surprise that their respective fictional worlds bare some similarities, and are informed by the prejudices and social norms that they shared. Their works in turn strongly influenced the development of fantasy fiction as it exists today. While a detailed comparison of their lives and works could fill a book, a brief look at some of the key parallels and differences shows how racial ideology shaped both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos—sometimes in similar ways, sometimes very differently.

British vs. American Fantasy Racism

By the turn of the century, both the United Kingdom and the United States of America were global colonial empires that used military force and other forms of influence (economic, cultural, etc.) to dominate or eradicate indigenous populations and further their geopolitical goals. While many of their colonies broke away and achieved independence over the course of the 20th century, Lovecraft and Tolkien were both familiar with and their views informed by the racist and colonialist ideology that supported the efforts to expand and maintain those holdings, including white supremacist propaganda such as Rudyard Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” (1899).

Because of this shared cultural basis, trying to map the cultural differences in racial ideology between Tolkien and Lovecraft can be difficult. The United States with its large BIPOC population, formal laws legalizing racial discrimination (Black Codes or Jim Crow, the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924, etc.), and recent and ongoing history of racial violence (slavery, the American Civil War, the American Indian Wars, lynching, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, etc.) was perhaps more well-known for racial discrimination than Britain—but the British Empire saw its fair share of violence as well including civil wars, rebellions, and even the 1919 race riots. The Anglosphere, as a whole, was permeated with ideas of white supremacy, colour prejudice, and racial violence.

While Lovecraft and Tolkien had vast differences in their lives and upbringing, they shared that common identity of being white, male, and “Anglo-Saxon” (a term which has become so misused politically, co-opted by white supremacists, and which is of sufficiently questionable historical value that historians are seriously arguing to stop using it). What differentiates them is less any particular national flavor or expression of racism, but in the traditions of fantasy fiction they were working within.

Michael Moorcock famously summed up The Lord of the Rings as “Epic Pooh”, noting:

The Lord of the Rings is much more deep-rooted in its infantilism than a good many
of the more obviously juvenile books it influenced. It is Winnie-the-Pooh posing as an
epic. If the Shire is a suburban garden, Sauron and his henchmen are that old
bourgeois bugaboo, the Mob – mindless football supporters throwing their beerbottles over the fence the worst aspects of modern urban society represented as the
whole by a fearful, backward-yearning class for whom “good taste” is synonymous
with “restraint” (pastel colours, murmured protest) and “civilized” behaviour means
“conventional behaviour in all circumstances”.

Many of Moorcock’s criticisms can apply as well to Lovecraft as to Tolkien: “The Silver Key” is undoubtedly a look backwards to simpler and happier times and “The Street” is effectively a nativist fable where everything was fine until the immigrants came in and property values started to decline, to take only two examples. Lovecraft and Tolkien both held the image of the traditional English rural gentry as a kind of ideal.

Yet Lovecraft was no hobbit. While Lovecraft had an antiquarian yearning for old buildings and a rose-tinted vision of British Colonial period, his fiction was mostly set in the current day and focused on themes of degeneration, hoary survivals from the past, ancient aliens, and cults rather than a celebration or exultation of the small joys in life. While Lovecraft regretted what he called the coming “Machine Culture,” he did not ignore or decry the advancement of technology and industrialization, or exalt a rural state that had fallen into decay. Dunwich is no Shire, for all the rural trappings; it is kind of an anti-Shire, a place where old ways and habits have turned inward and strange.

Moorcock places Tolkien in a tradition of fantasy that includes writers like Lord Dunsany, William Morris, and C. S. Lewis, British authors noted for their backward-looking fantasy with often stark differences between good and evil. Lovecraft was influenced by Dunsany too—but Lovecraft’s fantasy is part of the American school of fantasy as exemplified by Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and Fritz Leiber, Jr., who were his friends and correspondents. While no one will accuse Lovecraft of being an action writer in the Sword & Sorcery mold, this school of American fantasy is closer to the hardboiled detective fiction of the period (see George Knight’s “Robert E. Howard: Hardboiled Heroic Fantasist” in The Dark Barbarian), influenced by realism. Lovecraft et al. aren’t generally looking to preserve an idyll setting from corruption: their worlds are already corrupted, lived in, and sometimes degenerate. Good and evil are rarely absolute, or absolutely defined; and the moral grayness is intimate with the settings and the characters.

Understanding this difference is critical to appreciate how both Tolkien and Lovecraft are informed by and use race in their fiction. They are coming from a not-identical but substantially similar ideological background of colonialism and white supremacy, but how they express that ideology is shaped by what both are trying to accomplish, and how they do it.

White Mythic Spaces & Black Hobbits

The popular perception of the First World War has remained an inherently white mythic space in which white men fight against other whtie men and where minorities, when and if they are featured, are given an anonymous secondary role and are subject to the will and motivation of their white heroic leaders.

Stefan Aguirre Quiroga, “Race, Battlefield 1 and the White Mythic Space of the First World War” (2018)

H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien were white heterosexual men who were writing for what they probably assumed would be a white heterosexual male audience, and the majority of characters in all of their stories are also white, heterosexual (to the degree they express any sexuality), and male. In this, they were not any different from the thousands of other writers at the time, from Ernest Hemingway and J. D. Salinger to P. G. Wodehouse and Joseph Conrad. In many cases, neither Tolkien nor Lovecraft had to specify whether a principal character was “white” in terms of early 20th-century colour prejudice: it was assumed unless stated or implied otherwise. This is what makes stories like “Medusa’s Coil” possible: if every character’s race was clearly defined rather than assumed, there could be no subterfuge and thus no story.

White heterosexual man was the default everyman; the express normal. Anything that was not—women, gay, Black, etc.—was “other.” When most folks think of racism in the works of Lovecraft or Tolkien, this overwhelming default whiteness, heterosexuality, and masculinity is often understood, but difficult to acknowledge or talk about because it is still seen as the default. For white audiences especially, the vast numbers of white people in the Lovecraft Mythos or Middle Earth don’t look weird, because white audiences are used to seeing all-white casts. This mythic white space is something that most white audiences might not even question until they see an adaptation or derivative work with more diverse casting, such as the inclusion of Black characters in The Color Out of Space (2020) or The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power (2022).

Is it really that weird to have Black and brown hobbits?

Almost no Afro-American would deny that life for blacks is infinitely better than it was forty years aog. But in the worlds of today’s fantasy, the racial atmosphere remains unchanged. Blacks are either ignored or are portrayed in the same hackneyed stereotypes that should have died with colonialism. A detailed discussion of contemporary fantasy is really a topic for another essay. However, J. R. R. Tolkien and Michael Moorcock are good examples of writers who construct worlds wherein blacks are absent. There is really nothing wrong with that. Who needs black Hobbits? Seriously, the point is that it is better to be ignored than maligned.

Charles R. Saunders, “Die Black Dog!: A Look At Racism in Fantasy Literature”

Arguments over Black hobbits run into two issues: what Tolkien wrote, and what Tolkien did not write. As far as what Tolkien wrote, fans and scholars willing may recall that in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, in the chapter “Concerning Hobbits,” the Harfoots were described as “browner of skin,” and the Fallonides were “fairer of skin and also of hair.” Whether this corresponded to different races as they are popularly recognized today or whether this reflected or could be interpreted as the early 20th-century racialist ideas of the difference between “dark whites” (Melanochroi) and “fair whites” (Xanthochroi) is up for debate. Tolkien wrote that some hobbits were browner of skin, but that was it. He didn’t go into anthropological detail on the subject.

What Tolkien did not write about hobbits and other characters in his work was anything that utilized the standard racial terminology of the early 20th century. Lovecraft, writing stories set in his contemporary world, could and sometimes did specify Caucasian, Asian, Negroid, etc., and go into as much detail as any anthropologist or Ku Klux Klanner, if necessary. He could and sometimes (though rarely) in his fiction even used racial pejoratives and slurs, particularly if he wanted to establish a given character as a racist (as in “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” and “Medusa’s Coil.”) There aren’t a lot of BIPOC characters in Lovecraft’s Mythos, but they exist and are described using familiar terms.

Tolkien didn’t do this; arguably, he couldn’t. Middle Earth is handicapped from using this technical language of race because the fictional setting does not have the same constituent cultural baggage that led to such terminology. “Black hobbits” don’t exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien wrote it not because the physiognomy is impossible but because “Blackness” in the real-world racial sense does not exist in Middle Earth as Tolkien originally conceived it.

Which is a long way to say that yes, there are Dark Elves in Middle Earth, but they’re Moriquendi who are called that because they never saw the light of the Two Trees, not because they necessarily have more skin pigment than other elves; likewise the Black Númenóreans were “black” in that they associated with Sauron, not because of the color of their skin or hair. Tolkien wasn’t explicitly framing his characters in terms of 20th-century racism the way Lovecraft could and did. That doesn’t mean that those racialist ideas didn’t inform what Tolkien did write, and the people who read, illustrated, and wrote about Middle Earth were also bringing their cultural baggage of 20th-century racism with them in interpreting the material.

When illustrators depicted elves and hobbits from Tolkien’s writings, they tended largely to show them as white—reinforcing the idea of the mythic white space, above and beyond the actual words Tolkien wrote. These artistic decisions are important: Tolkien never specifies anywhere in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings that elves have pointed ears, either, but pointed ears have since become a defining feature of fantasy elves.

The Lovecraft Mythos doesn’t tend to get the same “Black hobbits” debate because as much as his works also represent a white mythic space and many of the same preconceptions are there, Lovecraft also very expressly wrote about BIPOC as well. Lovecraft’s characterization of those non-white characters tends to be very stereotypical—the Native American Grey Eagle from “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound” could have stepped out of a turn-of-the-century Western dime novel, and is a literary cousin to the Native Americans of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales. While it’s weird to think of Lovecraft as more expressly racially inclusive than Tolkien in his fiction, the point is that Lovecraft was working within the contemporary framework of racial ideology and the language that was part of his setting (an expression of hardboiled realism) and Tolkien was working outside of that ideology and language, building a world from a different set of first principles that didn’t necessarily have to agree with the real world (an expression of idealism).

Lovecraft and Tolkien were both bringing similar cultural assumptions to bear when creating their fiction, and they were by and large being read and interpreted by the same audience. When we think about race in Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos, we have to keep in mind the large part that reader response plays in the racial ideas being expressed. Every reader brings their own prejudices and ideology to these stories that can color how they can interpret both what is expressly written, and what is not written. Are the Black hobbits not there because Tolkien didn’t explicitly write them, or because we refuse to consider the possibility of Black hobbits? If Black hobbits break our suspension of disbelief, why is that? What does that say about us?

Machen & Mongoloids

When we talk about mythic white space and Black hobbits, we are focusing on real-world racialist terminology as applied to fantasy settings; yet some of the hallmarks of both Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos are the fantasy races that occupy them: the Elves, Dwarves, Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, Trolls, Deep Ones, Mi-Go, Ghouls, and Great Race of Yith, among others. Nor were Tolkien and Lovecraft alone in this kind of creation: Lord Dunsany’s fantasies included creatures from Classical myth and folklore such as centaurs (“The Bride of the Man-Horse”) and elves (“The Kith of the Elf-Folk”); E. R. Eddison in The Worm Ouroboros (1922) had Demons, Witches, Imps, Pixies, and Goblins who were essentially humans with individual nation-states of Demonland, Witchland, Impland, etc.; Edgar Rice Burroughs transplanted colonialist tropes to space in his Barsoom tales beginning with A Princess of Mars (1912), with Green Martians, White Martians, Red Martians, Yellow Martians, and Black Martians; Poul Anderson’s The Broken Sword (1954) drew from folklore and myth to depict a near-genocidal conflict between elves and trolls, with many other supernatural tribes and nations drawn into the conflict.

The creation, depiction, and reception of all of these fantasy peoples and kindreds were informed by contemporary ideas of race, and the practice of euhemerism in particular introduced a good deal of scientific racism and racial stereotypes into fantasy fiction. Different creators didn’t apply all the same aspects of 20th-century racism in their writing, and the unevenness of the approach can sometimes make it difficult to distinguish how an author is being influenced, but a particular example might help demonstrate how this worked.

They would be seen by a peasant in the fields walking towards some green and rounded hillock, and seen no more on earth; and there are stories of mothers who have left a child quietly sleeping, with the cottage door rudely barred with a piece of wood, and have returned, not to find the plump and rosy little Saxon, but a thin and wizened creature, with sallow skin and black, piercing eyes, the child of another race. Then, again, there were myths darker still; the dread of witch and wizard, the lurid evil of the Sabbath, and the hint of demons who mingled with the daughters of men. And just as we have turned the terrible ‘fair folk’ into a company of benignant, if freakish elves, so we have hidden from us the black foulness of the witch and her companions under a popular diablerie of old women and broomsticks, and a comic cat with tail on end. […] Supposing these traditions to be true, who were the demons who are reported to have attended the Sabbaths? I need not say that I laid aside what I may call the supernatural hypothesis of the Middle Ages, and came to the conclusion that fairies and devils were of one and the same race and origin; invention, no doubt, and the Gothic fancy of old days, had done much in the way of exaggeration and distortion; yet I firmly believe that beneath all this imagery there was a black background of truth.

Arthur Machen, “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895)

Machen penned a loose grouping of stories that supposed the “Little People” (elves, fairies, etc.) were not purely supernatural or otherworldly beings of myth but were based on genuine, physical beings; a lost branch of the human family tree, of which strange survivals might yet exist in the contemporary period—and Machen was directly paralleled in “scientific” literature by anthropologists like Margaret Murray, who in The Witch-Cult of Western Europe (1921) argued that the witch-cult did exist and that it was the nature-religion passed down from a pre-Caucasian “Mongoloid” people in Europe, “Mongoloid” being one of the scientific racism designations for Asian peoples which covered everything from Huns, Magyars, and Sami peoples to Chinese, Indians, and even Jews in some cases. Machen’s emphasis on sallow skin and slant eyes was a direct reference to stereotypes of “Mongoloid” appearance.

H. P. Lovecraft was directly inspired by both Arthur Machen and Margaret Murray; he adopted and conglomerated their ideas into his own personal theory of the witch-cult and strange survivals of a pre-human race, which inspired stories like “The Festival,” and in turn influenced correspondents like Robert E. Howard (see “Conan and the Little People”). Yet Tolkien, while probably not drawing directly from Machen as Lovecraft had, was absolutely influenced by these same stereotypes. In one letter he wrote:

The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the ‘human’ form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Forrest J. Ackermann, June 1958, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 274

This is an example of how real-world racial stereotypes influenced Tolkien and Lovecraft. Yet it is important to appreciate that Tolkien and Lovecraft were generally not simply using fantasy as a metaphor for real-world racial conflicts: the appearance of the Orcs were inspired by stereotypes of Asian people, but the Orcs are not culturally Asian or intended to represent real-life nations like China or Japan; neither were the Deep Ones of Innsmouth representative of Asians, Black people, Jews or any other real-life race or ethnicity. H. P. Lovecraft did dabble in a fantasy Yellow Peril with the story “Polaris,” but that was again, not metaphorical: he was very explicit that the ancient Inutos were supposed to be the ancestors of the Inuit of today.

Which again is the difference in approach between Lovecraft and Tolkien. Because he was writing stories predominantly set in contemporary time and with the language of contemporary race and prejudices, Lovecraft had no need for metaphors to conceal racial prejudice—he could be as explicit as he needed to be for the story, and generally was. Lovecraft could and did use real-world racism to his narrative advantage, using racial stereotypes and prejudices as stepping stones to lead readers into much more fantastic and weirder territory. The real-world prejudice expressed against the folks of Innsmouth, for instance, is based on the false assumption that the sailors and townsfolk and intermarried with Chinese brides and Pacific Islanders; the locals of Massachusetts couldn’t even conceive of who the Innsmouth folk actually married. Machen’s adoption of euhemerism to fantasy held tremendous potential for Lovecraft (and many other fantasy writers) to adapt creatures of myth into contemporary scientific racism terms, and writers after Lovecraft continue to use real-world (and changing) attitudes towards race as part of their stories, as in “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys.

By contrast, Tolkien’s racial ideology is more subliminal: the whole framing of the background of Middle Earth and the development and depiction of its peoples is very strongly inspired by the implicit biases of Tolkien’s upbringing in a culture of white supremacy. The delineation of the various kindreds of the Elves is almost Linnaean in its approach, but a lot of the underlying assumptions of race and prejudice in The Lord of the Rings are unexamined and thus never worked out in the course of the books.

For example, one basic problem is the idea of a race, like orcs, being depicted as wholly evil. This is dangerously representative of racist propaganda of the early 20th century, the kind of blanket bigotry which led directly to the Holocaust. While Tolkien doesn’t address this much in the actual text of The Lord of the Rings, he admits in one letter:

[…] asserted somewhere, Book Five, page 190, where Frodo assets that the orcs are not evil in origin. We believe that, I suppose, of all human kinds and sorts and breeds, though some appear, both as individuals and groups to be, by us at any rate, unredeemable…

J. R. R. Tolkien to W. H. Auden, 12 May 1965, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 355

The Shadow that bred them can only mock, it cannot make: not real new things of its own. I don’t think it gave life to the orcs, it only ruined them and twisted them; and if they are to live at all, they have to live like other living creatures.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Book 5, page 190

Whether or not Tolkien was consciously aware of the influences on his writing, the first generation of readers of The Lord of the Rings lived during the tumultuous 1950s, 60s, 70s did so in the shadow of the Holocaust, when de-colonization and civil rights movements were front-page news, and they could hardly have missed it. While not everyone would read racial bias into the work of Tolkien—or even Lovecraft, whose more explicitly racist works were not widely published for the first few decades—reading race in their stories was very common, and why the idea of fantasy races persists in fantasy fiction to this day. Tolkien and Lovecraft were not alone in this recontextualization of mythic and folkloric figures in terms of early 20th-century racist ideology, but they were both very influential in promoting that idea, either explicitly (in terms of Lovecraft and the witch-cult/Little People theory) or implicitly (Tolkien’s evil orcs).

Half-Elves & Hybridity

As for the negro question in general—I think that intermarriage ought to be banned in view of the vast number of blacks in the country. Illicit miscegenation by the white male is bad enough, heaven knows—but at least the hybrid offspring is kept below a definite colour-line & kept from vitiating the main stock. Nothing but pain & disaster can come from the mingling of black & white, & the law ought to aid in checking this criminal folly. Granting the negro his full due, he is not the sort of material which can mix successfully into the fabric of a civilised Caucasian nation. Isolated cases of high-grade hybrids prove nothing. It is easy to see the ultimate result of the wholesale pollution of highly evolved blood by definitely inferior strains.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 30 July 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 142-143

Irredeemably evil races are one problematic ramification of the influence of racial ideology on fantasy literature, but once you include the idea of “races” in a fantasy setting, it may necessarily introduce other contingent ideas such as interracial relationships, individuals with biracial or multiracial ancestry, eugenics, and genocide. Both Tolkien and Lovecraft developed these ideas into their fictional words in different ways, and they had plenty of works to draw inspiration from, including the demigods of Classical Greek and Roman mythology and contemporary fantasists like Lord Dunsany (the eponymous “Bride of the Man-Horse” had as grandparents a centaur, a god, a desert lion, and a sphinx) and Arthur Machen (notably Helen Vaughan of “The Great God Pan”).

Lovecraft would be inspired by “The Great God Pan” in particular when he wrote “The Dunwich Horror,” and the hybrid entity Wilbur Whately and his twin can fairly be described as a product of cosmic miscegenation. In his fiction, Lovecraft essentially always uses portrays race-mixing as something abhorrent, or resulting in a monstrous entity; readers might read something of Lovecraft’s personal prejudice into that fact, but in terms of stories like “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Curse of Yig,” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” the monstrous aspect comes from a genuinely monstrous and inhuman parent, and the effects of that heritage (regardless of how remote) tend to be out of proportion—that is to say, Lovecraft wasn’t being realistic, he was employing fantasy genetics to achieve certain narrative results.

Genetics as a discipline developed throughout the 20th century; the idea of heredity was fairly firmly established before Darwin published his theory of evolution in 1859, but the actual mechanism of inheritance (DNA) was not discovered until 1953. Genetic engineering during the writing of the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth was essentially the art of horse breeders and the science of Gregor Mendel’s peas. When we read about the swine-things found beneath Exham Priority in “The Rats in the Walls” or the hybrid gyaa-yothn in “The Mound,” we’re looking at fantasy eugenics at play—and the same is true for Tolkien’s orcs, uruks, and other servants:

The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. […] And these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, page 409

If Lovecraft used hybridity to emphasize the monstrous for his own story ends, Tolkien could do this as well. In various places in The Lord of the Rings Tolkien seems to hint at different possible relationships between various breeds of hobbits and elves, men, and dwarves, and also of half-orcs and goblin-men, and even once refers to those “out of Far Harad black men like half-trolls” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields…but most of these relationships are suggested only, or explicit only in supplementary materials. Interracial relationships are almost entirely off-the-page, and only those involving humans and elves like Aragorn’s marriage to Arwen are explicit in The Lord of the Rings itself. The most prominent hybrids in The Lord of the Rings and its backstory are the twin half-elves Elrond and Elros, whose lines of descent would intermarry in a symbolic restoration of the sundered nobility of Númenór on the throne of Gondor.

The differences between Elrond and Wilbur Whateley may seem to outweigh their similarities, but both characters were ultimately expressions of how their different creators used the idea of racial hybridity to tell the stories they wanted to tell. Lovecraft, a devotee of horror and weird fiction, made his hybrids monstrous, creatures that were both human and inhuman; Tolkien’s narrative of nobility and restoration used them as a vehicle for the return of the king. In both cases, the authors were influenced by ideas of interracial relationships and eugenics: they found expression in different ways, but they were coming from the same basic idea that if you cross a horse and a donkey you get a mule, something that partakes of both parents and yet is neither.

Jews, Dwarves, & Hitler

The dwarves of course are quite obviously—wouldn’t you say that in many ways they remind you of the Jews? Their words are Semitic obviously, constructed to be Semitic.

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1964 Interview

Meir Y. Soloveichik in The Secrets Jews of The Hobbit makes the argument that Tolkien coded Jewish stereotypes into the Dwarves of Middle Earth. A case could be made that at least some of these aspects are coincidental; Tolkien was partly inspired by the Nibelunglied, with its magic ring, dragon, magic sword, and greedy dwarves, so he wasn’t exactly making up the dwarves out of whole cloth, but was drawing inspiration from Norse and Germanic myth. Leaving aside for the moment whether the Nibelunglied coded antisemitism into its depiction of dwarves, this confluence of fantasy, Germany, and racism raises the question: what were Lovecraft and Tolkien’s responses to Hitler and Nazism?

Lovecraft, because he died in March 1937, only saw the early years of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi party. As an antisemite himself, Lovecraft was at first willing to believe the propaganda of the Nazi party after Hitler was named chancellor of Germany in 1933, and though he disagreed with some aspects of the antisemitic Nazi program, he was sympathetic with others:

Our literature & drama, selected by Jewish producers & great Jewish publishing houses like Knopf, & feeling the pressure of Jewish finance & mercantile advertising, are daily getting farther & farther from the real feelings of the plain American in New England or Virginia or Kansas; whilst the profound Semitism of New York is affecting the “intellectuals” who flock there & creating a flimsy & synthetic body of culture & ideology radically hostile to the virile American attitude. Some day I hope that a reasonably civilised way of getting America’s voice uppermost again can be devised. Not that I would advocate violence—but certainly, I can’t regard the Nazis with that complete lack of sympathy shewn by those who take popular newspaper sentiment at face value. By the way—it’s hardly accurate to compare the Jewish with the negro problem. The trouble with the Jew is not his blood—which can mix with ours without disastrous results—but his persistent & antagonistic culture-tradition. On the other hand, the negro represents a vastly inferior biological variant which must under no circumstances taint our Aryan stock. The absolute colour-line as applied to negroes is both necessary & sensible, whereas a similar deadline against Jews (though attempted by Hitler) is ridiculous.

H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 29 May 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea et al. 132-133

Within a few years, Hitler’s moves had already alienated Lovecraft, and Lovecraft’s criticisms would outnumber his moderate initial support for some phases of Nazism. The initial interest Lovecraft had in a fascist state that shared his white/Nordic/Aryan identity, and which promoted ideas of white supremacy, antisemitism, and nationalism that Lovecraft shared waned relatively quickly as it became apparent that the Nazis were violent anti-intellectual thugs. For his part, Lovecraft never wrote any reference to the Nazis into his fiction, and only one blatantly Jewish character (the bookshop dealer in “The Descendant”). This may or may not have been the result of earlier pushback Lovecraft had received on publicly voicing antisemitic comments, which he then did not repeat.

Tolkien’s response to Hitler and the Nazis is more directly antithetical. As a philologist, Tolkien was more aware than Lovecraft of the linguistic origin and meaning of “Aryan” and “Semite,” and whatever white supremacist ideas Tolkien might have absorbed growing up in the United Kingdom, they did not extend to embracing any aspect of Nazism or its racist ideology. Tolkien made this quite plain in a pair of letters about a proposed German translation of The Hobbit, where he wrote in part:

I do not regard the (probable) absence of all Jewish blood as necessarily honourable; and I have many Jewish friends, and should regret giving any colour to the nation that I subscribed to the wholly pernicious and unscientific race-doctrine.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Stanley Unwin, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Rütten & Leoning Verlag, 25 July 1938, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 37

Tolkien’s anti-Hitler attitudes would understandably grow more acute after Nazi Germany declared war on Great Britain, and stemmed in part from the great deal of study that Tolkien had put into the Norse and Germanic literature and folklore, which Nazis were corrupting with their racist ideology:

Anyway, I have in this War a burning private grudge—which would probably make me a better soldier at 49 than I was at 22: against that ruddy little ignoramus Adolf Hitler (for the odd thing about demonic inspiration and impetus is that it in no way enhances the purely intellectual stature: it chiefly affects the mere will). Ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, a supreme contribution to Europe, which I ever loved, and tried to present in its true light.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Michael Tolkien, 9 June 1941, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 55-56

Tolkien’s concern about the influence of Nazi ideology on “corrupting” the Norse and Germanic literature he so loved (keeping in mind that English is a Germanic language) with the white supremacist and antisemitic prejudice was well-founded, even today hate groups appropriate Norse and Germanic symbols such as runes, and terms like “Anglo-Saxon” are used to foster white supremacist ideals.

What Tolkien and Lovecraft perhaps did not see coming was the long tail of white supremacist ideological influence on fantasy—not so much the Nazis themselves, who would go on to become stock villains and the models for many more in works like Kthulhu Reich (2019) by Asamatsu Ken (朝松健), but in the way that readers and critics would interpret the racial ideologies and prejudices in fantasy fiction through the lens of World War II. Racial depictions and ideas which would be relatively mainstream and unremarkable before the 1940s thus become subject to atemporal criticism. An example might help demonstrate this:

[Robert E.] Howard’s tales, on the other hand, imagine a world in which a powerful blue-eyed muscled barbarian of the north can subdue various supernatural and racial grotesqueries. It’s hard not to see in his most well-known creation a kind of Death’s Head SS commando in a loincloth, treading the jeweled kingdoms of the earth beneath his jackboots.

W. Scott Poole, In the Mountains of Madness 229

Thus does Poole describe Robert E. Howard’s most popular creation, Conan the Cimmerian. In fairness to Poole, Howard was a white supremacist and subscribed to the idea of a white “Aryan” race; it’s part of the reason Howard got on with Lovecraft. This did influence their fiction: the very first Conan story, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” states that it takes place “between the years when the oceans drank Atlantis and the gleaming cities, and the years of the rise of the Sons of Aryas”—a clear reference to the Aryan race theory. However, Poole misses that just because you’re a white supremacist in the 1930s doesn’t automatically make you a Nazi or Nazi sympathizer. Robert E. Howard was an antisemite, but Howard and Lovecraft argued about the Nazis in their letters, and Howard was not in favor of them—not because of any antiracist sentiment, but because he didn’t trust fascist politics, disliked propaganda, and detested bullying.

To some folks, it may seem like splitting hairs: does it really matter if an individual was a card-carrying, goose-stepping, Heil Hitler-ing Nazi™ instead of a general population American or British white supremacist?

Consider Tolkien and his dwarves. You would be hard-pressed to find a fantasist of that period more clearly opposed to Nazism, but being anti-Nazi doesn’t mean your work is free from antisemitic stereotypes or white supremacy. “Nazi” is a powerful label, but it is prone to dilution through misuse and overapplication, and it tends to flatten out any possible nuance or depth. Strictly speaking, Lovecraft, Howard, and Tolkien were never Nazis—but all three of them were drawing on some of the same ideas that the Nazis used in formulating their imagery and ideology. Historical racism is a reality in fantasy fiction that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and that’s hard to do when blanket labels are applied without respect to historical accuracy, as Poole did with Howard. Characterizing Conan as a Nazi stormtrooper is both inaccurate and lazy; it reduces the character to caricature instead of acknowledging or exploring the complicated ways ’30s racist ideologies informed and shaped fantasy fiction—and Conan the Cimmerian was an is a hugely influential character in fantasy.

The problem with antisemitism in fantasy is that it is pernicious—antisemitism has found so much expression in European myth and folklore, and through that folklore in fantasy literature, sometimes coded and sometimes overt, it can be terribly easy for writers to repeat stereotypes. Sometimes without necessarily knowing that they are doing it.

When J. K. Rowling, for example, attributed goblins in the Harry Potter books as being secretive, greedy, big-nosed bankers looked down upon by wizards, she was perpetuating antisemitic stereotypes. They are little different from Tolkien’s dwarves, with the possible exception of being less subtle and less fully developed—Tolkien expanded considerably on the original presentation in The Hobbit, and the dwarves are never without positive attributes like courage—but it’s still a lot of the same iconography that the Nazis used in Jud Süß.

There is a bit of irony here in that Lovecraft, who was noted as an antisemite during his life and for his at least moderate initial agreement with Hitler, should not be a major force for antisemitic imagery in fantasy while Tolkien who was vocally opposed to Hitler may have coded antisemitic imagery into his dwarves—and did it so well that many aspects like dwarf beards and greed have become incredibly commonplace in fantasy fiction. The distinction between Lovecraft and Tolkien’s personal beliefs and their fiction is a critical one: a writer doesn’t have to believe in racist stereotypes to repeat racist ideas, nor is a racist required to make everything they write reflect their personal prejudices.

Personal Comparisons

I have the hatred of apartheid in my bones; and most of all I detest the segregation or separation of Language and Literature. I do not care which of them you think White.

J. R. R. Tolkien, “Valedictory Address to the University of Oxford” (1959) in J.R.R. Tolkien, Scholar and Storyteller: Essays in Memoriam

It is a fact that we have many more examples of H. P. Lovecraft being explicitly racist than we do J. R. R. Tolkien; it is also a fact that we have many more examples of Tolkien being antiracist than Lovecraft—speaking out against apartheid in South Africa, as above, or denouncing association of Middle Earth with white supremacist ideas, for example when he was asked if Middle Earth corresponds to “Nordic Europe” Tolkien wrote:

Not Nordic, please! A word I personally dislike; it is associated, though of French origin, with racialist theories.

J. R. R. Tolkien to Charlotte and Denis PLimmer, 8 Feb 1967, Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 375

However, before saying with absolute certainty that Lovecraft was more racist than Tolkien, it is important to remember that Lovecraft died in 1937, before World War II, the Holocaust, the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, and decolonization movements around the world. Lovecraft, more than Tolkien, lived in a culture of legal segregation and anti-miscegenation laws, and saw the rise of the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, the Silver Shirts, and the Coughlinites as well as the Nazi party…and perhaps more importantly, we have a lot more letters from Lovecraft than Tolkien.

The published letters of H. P. Lovecraft comprise more than twenty volumes, with more still to be published, and cover a period of about 26 years (1911 – 1937). The published letters of J. R. R. Tolkien mostly consist of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien (1981) and cover 59 years (1914 – 1972). That isn’t to say there aren’t more Tolkien letters out there, but they largely haven’t been published or studied to the extent that Lovecraft’s letters have been, and the bits that have been published have been largely from during or after WW2. Which is to say: we have a lot more racist material from Lovecraft in part because we have a lot more material period, and we have more antiracist material from Tolkien in part because we have a lot more post-WW2 material, when Tolkien seems to have turned against racism, especially in association with his work.

It isn’t just that we have more material on racism from Lovecraft than Tolkien, we have more material from Lovecraft on almost everything—jazz music, Harlem, Ernest Hemingway, pornography, homosexuality, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party, different types of cheese and canned beans, the Scottsboro Trial, etc.—at least, everything before his death in 1937. We will never know if Lovecraft might have changed his stance had he lived to see the true horrors perpetrated by the Nazis against Jews, Roma, homosexuals, etc. during the Holocaust, or the successes achieved by the Civil Rights movements.

Tolkien, to his credit, does appear to have been on the right side of history in opposing Hitler and apartheid—but keep in mind that we do not know the full picture of how he got to that point-of-view, and that views on race and prejudice are often muddy and conflicting, especially when seen through the lens of the present. It is easy in hindsight to see that the Nazis were monsters all along, and that the signs were all there…but it is different in the moment, when reports are conflicting, information is imperfect, and it is impossible to know how things will turn out. Historical racism was complicated, and so were historical individuals: Lovecraft and Tolkien were not simple men, nor were their views static throughout their life, but reflected changes in their lives and the world around them.

For all that Lovecraft was effectively always an antisemite, his views on Jews shifted considerably from his earliest references as a teenager to those at the end of his life. Lovecraft had Jewish friends like Tolkien did, and like Tolkien Lovecraft could credit them as being very gifted as well; Lovecraft even married a Jew, Sonia H. Greene. It is possible to oppose antisemitism and still code dwarves as Jewish; it is equally possible to be antisemitic and have Jewish friends. Not every bit of prejudice in the Lovecraft Mythos is an example of Lovecraft’s own prejudice: the real-life racial discrimination depicted in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” is a red herring for the much weirder interspecies relationships taking place. Nor is Tolkien’s stance against white supremacist readings of Middle Earth necessarily reflective of what he wrote: he may have opposed Hitler, but he still wrote a story that shows the heavy influence of the European-centered white supremacist mindset of the day.

More than many authors, we tend to associate Lovecraft and Tolkien with their respective works, but we should not mistake their personal feelings as being necessarily reflective of what appeared in their works. While the letters and supplementary writings of Lovecraft and Tolkien can give us great insight into their lives and imaginary worlds, the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth must also stand on their own—must be interpreted by readers as works apart from the authors themselves. Which readers have been doing for generations, sometimes addressing the racial ideas and implications, and sometimes continuing them.

The Racialist Legacy of Lovecraft & Tolkien

In tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons and massive multiplayer online roleplaying games like Worlds of Warcraft, one of the first choices a player makes is to decide their character’s race. Choosing a race can determine physical appearance, language, physical and mental attributes, and restrict access to various careers or classes. Race in fantasy gaming thus achieves a dream of every racialist in the early 20th century: to be able to both quantify the differences between groups of people, and to hardcode discrimination against them, segregating different races so that they in truth tend to obey various stereotypes.

At least, in some scenarios. In practice, race in fantasy gaming is one option among many, and here are often exceptions, special rules, and bending of said rules to allow players greater freedom to play the character they want. Yet the very fact that we use the term “race” to describe whether a player character is an elf, dwarf, human, halfling, orc, etc. is a reflection of the enduring legacy of Tolkien, Lovecraft, and other 20th century writers on the field of fantasy. Tolkien may not have invented elves and dwarves, taking inspiration from Norse and Germanic sagas and stories, but in a real way The Lord of the Rings helped codify elves and dwarves in the popular imagination—with many variations and further refinements; Gary Gygax famously included a long list of fantasy inspirations for Dungeons & Dragons in Appendix N. The Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (1981) by Sandy Petersen and published by Chaosium, Inc. doesn’t let players pick the race of their characters (at least, in terms of elves and dwarves, players can still pick skin color, ethnicity, nationality, etc.), but they do couch Lovecraft’s various entities in racial terms: Greater and Lesser Servitor Races, Independent Races, etc.

Fantasy gaming is one prominent example of how the idea of race has permeated the field of fantasy literature, but the influence of Tolkien, Lovecraft, et al. goes much further. The Lord of the Rings spawned innumerable fantasy trilogy imitators; the Lovecraft Mythos has had thousands of stories, poems, novels, and games expanding off of or adapting the original material Lovecraft wrote. Both Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work have been adapted to film, spectacularly so in the case of the Lord of the Rings trilogy directed by Peter Jackson, who followed up with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit.

None of those six films featured Black hobbits. Tolkien’s white mythic space remained intact.

All of the issues of race in Lovecraft and Tolkien’s work come into play in the works derived, inspired, or adapted from Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos. Lovecraft and Tolkien were writing in the early-to-mid 20th century and that culture shaped their work, and because their work has been successful contemporary audiences still have to grapple with the legacy of racial ideology, white supremacy, and antisemitic imagery that appears in what they wrote. More than that, there are generations of writers and artists who have carried on tropes of half-elves, changelings, cosmic miscegenation, and selectively bred servant races without addressing where those ideas come from, or what the ramifications of their inclusion in their stories are.

More than ever, some writers and artists are addressing those issues. Casts of films and streaming shows are getting more diverse, cultural appropriation is less prominent, some of the old tropes are re-examined. The Shadowrun (1989, FASA) roleplaying game has elves, dwarves, orks, and trolls in a near-future cyberpunk setting, one where fantasy racism coexists and blends with real-world racism; Ruthanna Emrys’ The Litany of Earth (2014) looks back at “The Shadow over Innsmouth” from the perspective of the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Orcs aren’t always evil anymore. A Deep One hybrid may be subject to racial profiling and discrimination. The syntax of race has shifted from Tolkien and Lovecraft’s day, and the interpretations and expansions of that work shift with them, often trailing the current consensus—and faced with reactionary feedback.

We have always lived in a politically-charged, race-conscious culture. Many major events of Lovecraft and Tolkien’s lives were centered around racial conflict, racial violence, and racist ideology. There was no “simpler time” without such conflict, not within historical memory. Greater diversity in adaptations of Tolkien and Lovecraft’s material to different media is a more recent development—a step away from the white mythic space that the Lovecraft Mythos and Middle Earth have occupied for so long—but it is no more politically-charged or forced than when Tolkien and Lovecraft chose how to write their stories in the first place, or when the first artist for their works decided that a given character should look Caucasian rather than Asian, or that orcs should be green or black.

As with picking a race in a roleplaying game, these choices have consequences that can restrict some options and open up others. The foundations of the white mythic space of Middle Earth and the Lovecraft Mythos were laid down by Lovecraft and Tolkien as they wrote as white men to a presumably mostly white and male audience, but the space was built up by generations of writers and artists that perpetuated that imagery of imaginary worlds filled with white people. The reactionary impulse to growing diversity in fantasy is a desire to retreat to that white mythic space—and in doing so, they reiterate the same attitudes that Moorcock criticized Tolkien for. Hobbits wanting to be safe in the Shire, ignoring everything beyond their own borders, upset at any perceived intrusion.

The legacy of H. P. Lovecraft and J. R. R. Tolkien is more than just issues of half-elves and interracial communities in coastal Massachusetts, but the ideas of race that they absorbed in their life, that influenced them and found expression in their fiction, are still relevant today. Just as we deal with the aftermath of racial conflict that Lovecraft and Tolkien lived through in their own lives, we have to deal with how that conflict found expression in their creative works. Lovecraft and Tolkien are dead; they have made all the artistic choices they can. It is up to audiences and creators now to make their own decisions as to how they will address the literary legacy left to them—the future of what the Mythos and Middle Earth can be—and this is only a small part of dealing with the ongoing consequences of historical racism in daily life.

A Final Word

This is not by any means an exhaustive or complete examination of race in the lives and works of Lovecraft or Tolkien; entire books have been written on both men and their fiction, and the well of literary analysis and biography has not yet been exhausted. The point of this essay is to illustrate some of the commonalities and differences in how racism influenced Lovecraft and Tolkien, how it found expression in their respective imaginary worlds, and how their audience then interpreted that work through the lens of their own prejudice as well. Declaring Lovecraft or The Lord of the Rings as racist isn’t technically inaccurate, but it is a gross simplification that obscures how pervasive racism and white supremacy were—and, sadly, still are.

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

Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft

We soon found, however, that we were dealing with an entirely different order of phenomena, and that the secretion of the pancreas is normally called into play not by nervous channels at all, but by a chemical substance which is formed in the mucous membrane of the upper parts of the small intestine under the influence of acid, and is carried thence by the blood-stream to the gland-cells of the pancreas2

W. M. Bayliss and E. H. Starling, “The Mechanism of Pancreatic Secretion” (1902)

H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born into a world without birth control pills, insulin for diabetics, anabolic steroids, hormone therapy for diseases such as cancer and thyroid disease; or hormone replacement therapy for menopausal women, intersex individuals, or transgender people. He would not, in fact, live to see many of these medical miracles carried into practice: endocrinology was in its infancy, the word “hormone” was not coined by Starling until 1905, and chemical synthesis of hormones would take decades to realize and become practical.

To a degree, hormones had their place in medicine long before the 1900s: anatomists had identified glands centuries before, and animal nd plant sources of hormones were used as part of traditional or scientific medicine. Yet it was not until Lovecraft’s lifetime that scientists began to understand the functionality of glands and their secretions, what those secretions were and how they worked. While we often focus on the electrical and mechanical marvels of the 20th century such as telephone, airplanes, and electric lightbulbs, the hormone revolution was no less earth-shattering in how it has ultimately transformed human society—in helping to manage disease, fertility, sexual characteristics, and growth disorders in unprecedented ways.

With the discovery of glandular secretions and hormones, supplemented by further discoveries and advancements in knowledge and potential utility of this information, came public awareness and interest, particularly in matters of sex. While not everyone could point to the pituitary gland or thyroid gland, at least fifty percent of the adult population could reliably locate the testes, and the knowledge that women had corresponding organs was also general knowledge. Early experiments with castration and transplantation of testes in animals such as Arnold Adolph Berthold’s 1849 experiments with roosters had rendered some remarkable effects…and some wondered if similar benefits could be achieved in humans.

The Gland Doctors

Xenotransplantation, the surgical attachment of non-human animal tissue to or into human bodies, gained interest in the 19th century. In 1889, at the age of 72, Dr. Charles-Édouard Brown-Séquard published his findings that a hypodermic injection of extracts animal testicles had given him renewed sexual potency (Brown-Séquard). In the 1910s, Dr. Eugen Steinach experimented with testicular secretions in animals, observing the effects when injected into female guinea pigs, who obtained more noticeably masculine secondary characteristics and behaviors. Theorizing this could be applied to humans, in 1918 he performed the “Steinach procedure” (a partial vasectomy that would hopefully help the body retain testicular hormonal secretions) on a human being, and the reported positive results resulted in a flood of patients and much publicity (Dr. Steinach Coming To Make Old Young).

Thus glandular injections, as well as the Steinach operation (which renders an external secretion internal by making gonads wholly ductless), often cause complete changes in emotional life.

H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 20 Jan 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 280

“Glandular injections” in this case might refer also to injections of glandular secretions to make up for deficiencies in the subject’s body. This was the case of Ewan Forbes, who was assigned female at birth but underwent injections of testosterone as an early form of treatment (see The Hidden Case of Ewan Forbes by Zoë Playdon.

Where injections of hormones could achieve some real medical benefit, neither Brown-Séquard or Steinach’s procedures transplanting glandular tissue achieved the effects they claimed. However, the reported success and the demand for medical intervention to address health issues, especially sexual health and wellbeing, inspired more fantastic procedures and claims. The two most notorious “gland doctors” were Dr. Serge Voronoff and “Dr.” John R. Brinkley.

Voronoff’s early work involved the transplanting of testicles and other glands from animal to animal, and xenotransplantation of chimpanzee thyroid glands into humans suffering thyroid deficiencies. The procedure for which he gained wealth and fame was the xenotransplantation of chimpanzee testicular tissue (slices, not whole organs) into human beings; he also transplanted chimpanzee ovary tissue into women in menopause, and more exotic experiments (see David Hamilton’s The Monkey Gland Affair).

None of Voronoff’s patients experienced the promised increase in vigor or sexual potency, although many may have experienced a placebo effect. Yet the immense popularity of the procedure (whether performed by Voronoff or someone else) inspired others. One of these was John R. Brinkley, a conman and quack doctor whose specialty was transplanting goat glands—testicles and ovaries—to restore or enhance sexual function and cure disease. While this was even more medically dubious than Voronoff’s procedure (Brinkley’s medical diploma had come from a diploma mill), the claims gained enough fame and fortunate for Brinkley to continue to operate, sometimes running his own hospitals (Plan Hospital At Ensenada, see also Pope Brock’s Charlatan: America’s Most Dangerous Huckster, the Man Who Pursued Him, and the Age of Flimflam).

In these grey after-years, without the spontaneity of the of the occasion, I can’t get the same old mood. The old man has aged and dry’d up since good old 1927! Well–let’s think on the subject at our respective leisures, (if such exist) and maybe one of us will get an idea and go ahead with the goat-gland surgery.

H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 19 Jan 1931, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 281

Lovecraft was joking; he is comparing his inability to think of a comedic plot to follow up his story “Ibid” to sexual impotence.

The gland transplantation era would peak and fade during Lovecraft’s lifetime, and despite his quote to Moe above, there’s no evidence Lovecraft was ever interested in either procedure—but he was aware of them. This was accepted medical science that Lovecraft incorporated into his world view and philosophy, as when he would state:

The difference between good will and hate is very clear scientifically. These instincts are seen to be diverse in excitation, manner of operation, and effect—modern research shewing the one to be a product of hormones from such glands as the gonads and the pineal, while the other comes almost exclusively from adrenal hormones.

H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 3 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.728

Genuine medical advancements in identifying hormones and gland function and sensationalized claims of gland transplantation both entered into the public consciousness, not just as the butt of jokes but also inspiring fiction.

Gland Stories

The articles on serums & gland extracts have all sorts of fictional possibilities—some of which have been cleverly used already, while others await the hand of the capable expert.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 25 July 1935, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 612

Early science fiction stories in the pulps were often focused on gadgets such as robots, spaceships, and various rays of strange and unusual effects. Yet during the 1920s and 30s at least dozens, and possibly hundreds of “gland stories” emerged. These stories capitalized on the theories and claims of glands and hormones in the popular press and medical journals; while scientists and doctors (real or quacks) could make expansive claims about the potentials of glands, writers in the science fiction pulps could realize those fantastic claims, in stories like W. Alexander’s “The Anais Gland” (Amazing Stories Nov 1928), Capt. S. P. Meek’s “The Gland Murders” (Amazing Detective Jan 1930), Clare Winger Harris’ “The Ape Cycle” (Science Wonder Quarterly Spring 1930), Malcolm Alfred’s “The Gland Men of the Island” (Wonder Stories Jan 1931, also published as “The Ho-Ming Gland” Feb Amazing Stories 1933), Raymond A. Palmer’s “Three From The Test-Tube” (Wonder Stories Dec 1935), Ed Earl Repp’s “The Gland Superman” (Amazing Stories Oct 1938)…and a small story about the stimulation of the pituitary gland by H. P. Lovecraft called “From Beyond” (The Fantasy Fan Jun 1934).

As for the pineal gland—modern endocrinology has fairly well established its actual function in the human system…as a regulator of the chemical & biological changes attending adolescence & maturity. But surely the legends lose nothing in picturesqueness & imaginative value through being merely legends.

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 24 Mar 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 412

While nothing in our normal experience is ever likely to call forth any additional senses, it is not impossible that experiments with the ductless glands might open up a fresh sensitivity or two—& then what impressions might not pour in?

H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 18 Nov 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 478-479

In the pulps, manipulations of the glands could achieve biological miracles: immortality, gigantism, the transformation of humans into apes and apes into humans, and other more obscure and imaginative possibilities. As its worst, glands became nothing more than a kind of phlebotinum, an excuse for any and all bizarre transformations or effects that the writer wished to achieve, the equivalent of red kryptonite in the Superman comics or a transporter malfunction on Star Trek. Yet at their best, gland stories represented with fair accuracy to the scientific knowledge of the day the possibilities that increased scientific knowledge and medical control of hormones offered.

Because this was essentially new technology, the technological abilities sometimes ran ahead of the social structures they would effect, and morality often lagged behind. All three tendencies tend to be exemplified in science fiction, where the results are often miraculous and the moral and ethical ramifications are still seen through the lens of the early 20th century. When Lovecraft waxed on about the possibility of hormones to improve life, for example, he wasn’t thinking of birth control or transgender people:

Wiggam, like Prof. J. B. S. Haldane, believes that much will be done in future toward the artificial development of Homo sapiens, but I doubt very much whether such development can ever reach more than a tiny fraction of the extremes they postulate. In the first place, the complexity of the laws governing organic growth is enormous—so enormous that the number of unknown factors must always remain hopelessly great. We can discover & apply a few biological principles—but the limit of effectiveness is soon reached. For example—despite all the advances in endocrinology & all the experiments in glandular rejuvenation, there is no such thing as a permanent or well-balanced staving-off of senescence & dissolution. And in the second place, the fact that human beings live by emotion & caprice rather than by reason will probably prevent the widespread application of any unified plan of eugenics.

H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 22 Nov 1934, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 297

In his letters, Lovecraft doesn’t touch directly on the implications of sex hormones specifically on sex and gender. During his life, the understanding of gender identity, and how they interacted with biological sex and sexual orientation was very different than today. There were a number of individuals that did not conform to their gender assigned at birth, and individuals that felt sexual attraction to members of their own gender, and how Lovecraft’s understanding of how this all worked was fairly minimal—psychologists and sexologists would use terms like urning and uranian to describe those whose biological sex did not match their observed sexual attraction, but often struggled with individuals who failed to fit neatly into defined gender behavior or roles.

In the pulps, the nexus of hormones and gender identity or sexuality sometimes bore odd fruit. Seabury Quinn’s “Strange Interval” (Weird Tales May 1936) involves a man captured by pirates who is castrated—a rather radical form of hormone therapy—and dressed in women’s clothes; as their body changes from the lack of testosterone, the character transitions mentally and physically into a woman and engages in a lesbian relationship with another woman. The character de-transitions by the end of the tale—mentally, at least; the physical removal of their gonads cannot be healed—but it is a crude example of how the basic ideas of hormonal changes to the body can affect identity. A more “scientific” example is Dr. David Keller’s “The Feminine Metamorphosis” (Science Wonder Stories Aug 1929), where an underground organization of women, tired of being discriminated against, use surgery and injections to pass as men and rule the world. The main flaw to the plan is that the transitioners sourced their hormones or tissues from Asian men infected with syphilis, and now suffer from the disease.

Keller and Quinn were both contemporaries of Lovecraft, and his peers at Weird Tales; neither can be said to have a progressive viewpoint toward women (even by the standards of the 1920s and 30s), and these stories are about as sexist as can be imagined. Lovecraft, when he finally wrote a gender transition story in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (written Aug 1933, published Weird Tales Jan 1937) used a transfer of personality rather than biological process or surgery to effect the change…yet even then, when Edward Pickman Derby’s friend sees the forced transition he describes it in biological terms, glands and all:

The face beside me was twisted almost unrecognisably for a moment, while through the whole body there passed a shivering motion—as if all the bones, organs, muscles, nerves, and glands were readjusting themselves to a radically different posture, set of stresses, and general personality.

Transitioning Into the 21st Century

The advances in scientific research into glands and hormones were paralleled by advancements in gender reassignment surgery, psychological understanding of gender dysphoria, and shifting legal and societal attitudes towards sex, gender, and orientation. While we do not normally think of H. P. Lovecraft and his pulp peers as being influenced by all these changes and scientific advancements—they were. This was their world, as much as Jim Crow, the Great War, and the Great Depression.

When readers today read stories like “The Thing on the Doorstep,” “Strange Interval,” and “The Feminine Metamorphosis,” they understand those stories through the syntax of a world where transgender rights, and often transgender people, are in danger. Over a century after the discovery of hormones, our societies still struggle with the ramifications of their use…but the conversation has changed. There is no question about whether insulin, steroids, or hormonal birth control are effective; the goat-gland doctors and monkey gland men are gone, and natural and synthetic hormones are now potent tools in the medical tool chest. The question of today is one of when and how those medical options may be exercised, and by whom.

When we see the often clumsy grappling with issues of gender and biological sex in these stories by Lovecraft, Quinn, and Keller it is a bit simplistic to say that these men were transphobic in the contemporary sense, if only because awareness of gender dysphoria and the possibilities of transitioning were as hypothetical as space travel and human cloning.

Transitioning was only in its medical infancy during the 20s and 30s; these men fumbled with new ideas, with no inkling of what the reality of hormone replacement therapy would look like—except possibly Keller, who worked as a doctor and a psychiatrist and wrote books on sexology. Of the three, Keller had the best grasp of the contemporary medical profession’s ideas regarding gender the scientific potential of surgery and hormone therapy at the time—but he focused not on the individual but on contemporary social concerns vis-a-vis “the war of the sexes” rather than gender dysphoria.

In their own historical context, it seems evident these men did not set out to be bigots toward a population which for all practical purposes barely existed yet. Their failure to imagine or understand that population is typical: readers might compare how pulp writers imagined flying cars and colonies on Mars but largely missed the smartphone and the internet. Failure to see the future does not excuse other or related prejudices (sexism, homophobia, etc.) as expressed in their fiction, but to judge them by the standards of present understanding of transgender issues is to miss the fact that those issues by and large didn’t exist in the popular consciousness yet.

Gland stories, and pulp stories of gender transition have to be seen as intimately tied together with and influenced by how science was changing during the early 20th century, presenting new facts and ideas for pulp writers like Lovecraft to explore. Often their approach was flawed, but just as the flaw in a gem may catch the eye, so too are the flaws in their stories fascinating in their own way. These stories are historical artifacts of a more primitive line of thought regarding medical science, gender, and transition as they were in the 1920s and 30s…and, hopefully, demonstrate how much our society has changed in the last hundred years, thanks to the discovery of hormones.

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

“The Murky Glass” (1957) as by August Derleth & H. P. Lovecraft

While men are thinking of the planets, other worlds may be thinking of us. At least the curious phenomena of that old New England house suggested that possibility… An unforgettable new story of uneathly wonder by two masters of the science-fiction terror tale.

Epigraph to “The Murky Glass” in Saturn: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction May 1957

August Derleth was one of the original creators of what became known as the Cthulhu Mythos. His contributions started while Lovecraft was alive with “The Lair of the Star Spawn” (1932) and “The Thing That Walked on the Wind” (1933). After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937 and the creation of Arkham House in 1939 to publish Lovecraft’s work, August Derleth would continue to write a number of tales of the Cthulhu Mythos and in the Lovecraftian vein. These were not written immediately with an eye toward filling out the Lovecraft collections or even his own anthologies, but for sale to magazines, mostly Weird Tales, and published over a series of years. The stories can be divided into three groups:

  1. Older stories written with Mark Schorer that were not published until later (“Spawn of the Maelstrom” (1939) and “The Evil Ones” (1940, later reprinted as “The Horror from the Depths”).
  2. Pulpy horror tales (“The Return of Hastur” (1939), “Passing of Eric Holm” (1939), “The Sandwin Compact” (1940), “Ithaqua” (1941), “Beyond the Threshold” (1941), “The Dweller in Darkness” (1944), “Something in Wood” (1948), “The Whippoorwill in the Hills” (1948), “The House in the Valley” (1953), “The Seal of R’lyeh” (1957, also as “The Seal of the Damned”), and the Trail of Cthulhu series (“The Trail of Cthulhu” (1944, also as “The House on Curwen Street”), “The Watcher from the Sky” (1945), “The Testament of Clairmont Boyd” (1949, also as “The Gorge Beyond Salapunco”), “The Keeper of the Key” (1951), and “The Black Island” (1952)).
  3. “Posthumous collaborations” with H. P. Lovecraft: The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), “The Survivor” (1954), “Wentworth’s Day” (1957), “The Peabody Heritage” (1957), “The Gable Window” (1957, also as “The Murky Glass”), “The Ancestor” (1957), “The Shadow Out of Space” (1957), “The Lamp of Alhazred” (1957), “The Shuttered Room” (1959), “The Fisherman of Falcon Point” (1959), “Witches’ Hollow” (1962), “The Shadow in the Attic” (1964), “The Dark Brotherhood” (1966), “The Horror from the Middle Span” (1967), “Innsmouth Clay” (1971), and “The Watchers Out of Time” (1974); and Robert E. Howard: “The House in the Oaks” (1971).

The individual merit of these stories varies considerably, but it should be apparent that taken together they represent a substantial body of “Lovecraftian” fiction: 34 short stories, novelettes, and a novel—and Lovecraft’s own published fiction only amounts to 65 stories (plus ~33 revisions and collaborations like “Four O’Clock” (1949), “The Curse of Yig” (1929), “The Night Ocean” (1936), etc.)…and Derleth had, as well as his fictional input to the Mythos, a strong editorial influence on how Lovecraft’s fiction was interpreted, through his introductions to various anthologies and collections of Lovecraft’s work, analyses of his fiction, press releases etc. This is why after Derleth’s death in 1971 there was pushback from fans like Richard L. Tierney in “The Derleth Mythos”—and lent impetus to a Lovecraft purest movement in publishing and scholarship.

Much of the animus against Derleth is centered on his “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft. To better understand the reasoning behind these, it is important to understand what Derleth publicly claimed and presented these stories as:

Not for twelve years has the byline of the late, great Howard Phillips Lovecraft appeared on any new work–and it appears now only because, among the papers of the late R. H. Barlow are found Lovecraft’s notes and/or beginnings for the seven stories which go to make up this collection–all now completed by August Derleth, just as he completed Lovecraft’s unfinished novel, The Lurker at the Threshold.

Here are seven tales–two novelettes and five shorter stories–which belong to virtually every period of Lovecraft’s work–from the early fantasies (The Lamp of Alhazred), through the New England pieces (Wentworth’s Day and The Peabody Heritage) to the Cthulhu Mythos (The Gable Window, The Shadow out of Space, The Survivor). Taken together, these seven stories are a nostalgic backward look to the macabre world in which H. P. Lovecraft was supreme.

These are tales of terrifying witchcraft, of cosmic horror, of quaint magic, such as only H. P. Lovecraft could have conceived. Here in these pages Great Cthulhu walks again, the Dunwich-Arkham country lives once more, and, in a final allegory, Lovecraft himself is portrayed in a quasi-autobiographical manner.

August Derleth’s completion of these stories was a labor of love. Perhaps no other contemporary writer has so closely emulated the Lovecraft style as he–as these stories testify.

The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap

Among the papers of the late Howard Phillips Lovecraft were various notes and/or outlines for stories which he did not live to write. Of these, the most compelte was the title story of this collection. These scattered notes were put together by August Derleth, whose finished stories grown from Lovecraft’s suggested plots, are offered here as a final collaboration, post-mortem.

The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page

The works in The Survivor and Others and the novel The Lurker at the Threshold were all presented as “unfinished” works, or works built up from Lovecraft’s notes. The truth was quite different: Lovecraft left no such incomplete stories. What he did leave was a commonplace book containing various bare ideas for stories, some fragments of prose, and a body of correspondence that included Lovecraft’s dreams and other ideas for stories never written during his lifetime. From these, Derleth wrote his “posthumous collaborations”—some of them (“The Lamp of Alhazred”) contained some genuine text from Lovecraft, but most of them were little more than stories vaguely suggested from Lovecraft’s commonplace book, as close to pure Derleth as most of Lovecraft’s “ghostwriting” efforts were pure Lovecraft. Derleth’s marketing of these works as “by Lovecraft and Derleth” was seen by some as dishonest…and worse than that, those that took Derleth at his word often took the works to be primarily Lovecraft’s, such as David Punter’s influential textbook The Literature of Terror (first edition 1980, second edition 1996).

It should be noted, however, thas as much as the publication of these stories always emphasized Lovecaft’s name and contribution, this was first and foremost a marketing gimmick. In private, just as Lovecraft would acknowledge his own contributions in his revision and ghostwriting work, Derleth would frankly acknowledge the full extant of his authorship:

[…] & Ballantine’s paperback of THE SURVIVOR & OTHERS (emphasizing Lovecraft, understandably, over Derleth, who did 97% of the writing) […]

August Derleth to Ramsey Campbell, 23 Aug 1962, Letters to Arkham 79

The pushback against Derleth’s interpretation of and contributions to the Mythos has led to his stories being largely neglected by scholars and fans. Yet many of Derleth’s stories are worth at least a little study, and some understanding of how and why they were written and published can give help elucidate the picture of Mythos publishing post-Lovecraft.

As should be clear, August Derleth didn’t start out writing “posthumous collaborations” as soon as Lovecraft’s corpse was cold. His first was The Lurker at the Threshold (1945), which has the distinction of being the first Mythos novel. Including Lovecraft’s name in this work can be barely defended—the ~50,000 word novel contains two unrelated fragments from Lovecraft’s papers, “The Round Tower” and “Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England, of Daemons in No Humane Shape” which come to ~1,200 words—but it is clear that Derleth is using Lovecraft’s name predominantly for marketing purposes, and does not assay another “posthumous collaboration” until late 1953 or early 1954:

You already have “The Survivor,” which I hope can appear in the July or September issue. Three others are now ready–

“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words

“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words

“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words

There will be at least two more–or enough for an entire year of Weird Tales. And we might be able to turn up more thereafter, if the use of them has any noticeable effect on the sales of the magazine.

August Derleth to Dorothy McIlwraith, 24 Feb 1954, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 211

By 1954, Weird Tales under editor Dorothy McIlwraith was on its last legs, having switched to bimonthly and a digest format, and even re-instated reprints to cut costs—which included reprinting some of Lovecraft’s fiction. Derleth was a loyal contributor and could have resurrected the “posthumous collaboration with Lovecraft” gimmick in an effort to help save the magazine—or, considering that Derleth had married in 1953 and his wife was pregnant, perhaps he simply needed the money. In either case, it was too little, too late to save Weird Tales, which folded with the September 1954 issue, before any of Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” except “The Survivor” (WT July 1954) could be published.

I have here: “The Gable Window,” “The Ancestor,” “Wentworth’s Day,” “The Peabody Heritage,” Hallowe’en for Mr. Faukner,” also “The Seal of R’lyeh.” It might be that whoever takes over WT might see the value of the Lovecraft tie-in, but I don’t know…

Dorothy McIlwraith to August Derleth, 15 Nov 1954, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 219

Despite McIlwraith’s hopes, no one picked up publication of Weird Tales, and August Derleth was left with a handful of “posthumous collaborations” and very few markets in which to publish them. Eventually, Derleth would publish these stories through Arkham House in a volume titled The Survivor and Others (1957)…yet there is an interesting note in that book regarding one of the stories:

The Gable Window, copyright 1957, by Candar Publishing Company, Inc., (as The Murky Glass), for Saturn, May 1957.

The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page

Derleth had managed to get “The Gable Window” published, albeit under a different title—which is no great surprise, many editors change titles to suit their tastes, and some editors go further: they might break up or combine chapters and paragraphs, revise wording, even excise extraneous text or revise endings. Lovecraft decried these practices and would in later years be adamant that the editor not even change a comma, but Derleth was probably more practical and less particular: weird fiction was, for Derleth, often more of a potboiler effort than a major form of personal expression as it was with Lovecraft.

As it happens, a close (line-by-line) comparison between the Saturn text of “The Murky Glass” and the Survivor text of “The Gable Window” shows a number of differences between the two texts, most relatively minor. Without access to surviving drafts, it’s difficult to reconstruct the exact sequence of revision or editorial interference, but by looking at a handful of the differences we might get an idea of the editorial thought behind those changes—and this is especially the case since “The Gable Window” text in The Survivor and Others is the basis for all other publications of the text. “The Murky Window” has never been reprinted as-is.

“The Murky Glass”“The Gable Window”
It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor. To tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and cold, holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SA103)It seemed, therefore, that the first order of business was a restoration of the rightful way of existence in the house, a resumption of life on the ground floor, for to tell the truth, I found myself from the beginning curiously repelled by the gable room; in part, certainly, because it reminded me so strongly of the living presence of my dead cousin who would never again occupy his favorite corner of the house, and in part, also, because the room was to me unnaturally alien and holding me off as by some physical force I could not understand, though this was surely consistent with my attitude about the room, for I could understand it no more than I ever really understood my cousin Wilbur. (SO79-80)

One of the characteristics of Derleth’s pastiche style of Lovecraft is long, run-on sentences; a tendency that is more marked when sentences (and paragraphs) that were separate in “The Murky Glass” are conjoined in “The Gable Window.” Whether this was a result of an editor chopping up Derleth’s initial draft, or Derleth splicing together things to make longer sentences and paragraphs when preparing it for book publication is unclear, and either is likely. Derleth’s choice to omit “cold” from the description of the gable room probably reflects that he never refers to the room as particularly cold in the remainder of the story; a little clean-up.

My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession of the house. (SA105)My cousin’s will had been probated, the estate had been settled, and no one challenged my possession. (SO82)

Pulp writers typically had to shave words from a manuscript to meet tight wordcount limits, so the question here is: did Derleth include “of the house” originally and decide to excise it as unnecessary in “The Gable Window?” Or did the editors of Saturn think the line was unclear and add “of the house” to clarify?

Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, and these are as follows:

One: All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed.
Two: All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham.
Three: The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.

You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SA108)
Dear Fred, he wrote, The best medical authorities tell me I have not long to live, and, since I have already set down in my will that you are to be my heir, I want to supplement that document now with a few final instructions, which I adjure you not to dismiss and want you to carry out faithfully. There are specifically three things you must do without fail, as follows:

“1) All my papers in Drawers A, B, and C of my filing cabinet are to be destroyed.
“2) All books on shelves H, I, J, and K are to be turned over to the library of Miskatonic University at Arkham.
“3) The round glass window in the gable room upstairs is to be broken. It is not to be simply removed and disposed of elsewhere, but it must be shattered.

You must accept my decision that these things must be done, or you may ultimately be responsible for loosing a terrible scourge upon the world. I shall say no more of this, for there are other matters of which I wish to write here while I am still able to do so. One of these is the question… (SO86)

The most notable changes between the two texts are format. The Saturn editors preferred italics to quotation marks, and spelling out words and months to abbreviations, The Survivor text is pithier. Which is better for reading is a bit of an open question; as a digest Saturn had to be divided into two columns per page, which might encourage shorter paragraphs, more frequent breaks, and the more streamlined experience italics give…or perhaps Derleth changed his mind.

What was I to make of these curious instructions? (SA108)What was I to make of these strange instructions? (SO86)

Case in point, “curious” and “strange” in this context are basically synonymous, so the changing from one to the other is essentially down to personal preference rather than any kind of artistic or editorial justification. These are the kind of changes in word choice that you might expect to see either from an editor determined to change something or a writer that just liked to fiddle.

Most of the differences in “The Murky Glass” and “The Gable Window” are like that: formatting, word choice, a little cutting or rearranging, mostly in The Survivor and Others text. There are a handful of typos as well: “scratching” (“Murky”) becomes “cratching” (“Gable”); “Shanteks” (“Murky”) becomes “Shantaks” (“Gable”), “myths” (“Murky”) becomes “Mythos” (“Gable”), “subterranean” (“Murky”) becomes “subterrene” (“Gable”) and other bits like that. There is one rather significant and noticeable difference, however, in a particular passage:

These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the . Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SA109)These books were in various languages; they bore titles such as the Pnakotic Manuscripts, the R’lyeh Text, the Unaussprechlichen Kulten of von Junzt, the Book of Eibon, the Dhol Chants, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan, Ludvig Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis, the Celano Fragments, the Cultes des Goules of the Comte d’Erlette, the Book of Dzyan a photostatic copy of the Necronomicon, by an Arabian, Abdul Alhazred, and many others, some of them apparently in manuscript form. (SO87)

Either Derleth decided to insert several eldritch tomes in “The Gable Window,” or whoever was setting text or type for “The Murky Glass” dropped a line; given the odd period right before Celano, I lean toward the latter. Little printing errors like that just happen sometimes.

Even taken all together, the sum of these small textual differences do not substantially impact the story; this is not a Mythos equivalent of the Wicked Bible, but it shows that you should not take a given version of a text for granted. How do you know that the text you are reading in a Lovecraft book is what Lovecraft set down—or is by Lovecraft at all? How many editors have had their hands on it? Textual errors and variations have propped up and been carried forward…sometimes for decades and through multiple versions. In many online versions of “Herbert West—Reanimator” for example, you will find the text prefaced with a spurious quote from Dracula—which was not in Lovecraft’s original text or any major subsequent printing; it appears to have been added on to a freely available text on the internet sometime in the 2000s and to have spread from there, even into print editions that use Wikisource as their source.

You might well imagine how a reader in the 1950s might have felt as they sat down with their “new” book of Lovecraft stories, and wondered to themselves: did Lovecraft write this?

The point is all the more cogent because “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” is one of Derleth’s most poorly-received “posthumous collaborations.” We’ve focused so far on textual criticism and publishing history, but we haven’t discussed the content of the story or how it fits into the larger body of Mythos fiction. To understand that, let’s rewind back to how this story came to be.

After writing “The Survivor” (which was based on some actual notes Lovecraft left for a story of that name), Derleth turned to Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book, which had been preserved by R. H. Barlow, for inspiration. Two plot-germs probably inspired “The Gable Window”:

Something seen at Oriel window of forbidden room in ancient manor house. (29)

Pane of peculiar-looking glass from a ruined monastery reputed to have harbored devil-worship set up in modern house at edge of wild country. Landscape looks vaguely and unplaceably wrong through it. It has some unknown time-distorting quality, and comes from a primal, lost civilization. Finally, hideous things in other world seen through it. (41)

The Notes and Commonplace Book of H. P. Lovecraft

Derleth identified the second entry (“Pane of…”) as the genesis for the story in The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces (1959); Derleth scholar John Haefele adds the other (“Something seen…”) as a probable inspiration in A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 224, and I have to agree (the distinction between “Oriel” and “Gable” in this case being close enough for amateurs to mistake one for the other). The story is, although this is not immediately apparent, a tie-in to Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” since the protagonist’s uncle is Henry Akeley—Derleth would be the first pasticheur to exploit genealogical connections, adding cousins to Lovecraft’s family trees in stories like “The Shuttered Room,” though far from the last.

The set-up for the plot is familiar: a relation has died, and the heir must goes to the old house and finds they’ve inherited a bit of a Mythos mess. Lovecraft himself never used this exact formulation, though “The Moon-Bog” and “The Rats in the Walls” both involve an heir rebuilding an ancestral manse or castle. Derleth had already written something similar in “The Return of Hastur” and “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” and would use the premise again in “The Seal of R’lyeh,” “The Peabody Heritage,” “The Shuttered Room,” “The Shadow on the Attic,” “The Horror from the Middle Span,” and “The Watchers out of Time.” It is ultimately a variation on the haunted house tale, or even of the Gothic inheritance of an ancestral house or castle, and there are a million different variations on that familiar theme, and Derleth was well-versed in such tales.

The pseudo-haunting takes its time to develop. While not every “posthumous collaboration” that Derleth wrote was explicitly part of the Mythos, “The Gable Window” was intended to be such a story, and so Derleth is careful to place it not far from Dunwich and Arkham, to drop references to Miskatonic University, and to build up to the succession of revelations. His prose doesn’t try to capture Lovecraft’s more ultraviolet style, and there is at least one passage which is very un-Lovecraftian:

No matter how I tried, I failed utterly to catch any sight of the cat, though I was disturbed in this fashion fully half a dozen times, until I was so upset that, had I caught sight of the cat, I would probably have shot it.

August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83

It is always difficult to tell with Derleth whether certain details are drawn from his great familiarity with Lovecraft’s correspondence and life and how many are original to him. The name of the cat “Little Sam,” for example, recalls “Little Sam Perkins,” one of the neighborhood cats that Lovecraft doted on while he lived at 66 College St. If Derleth had incorporated some of Lovecraft’s material from his letters about Sam Perkins, we could say for certain, but Derleth didn’t. Instead, Little Sam occupies largely the same purpose in the text as the cat in “The Rats in the Walls” does, as an animal attuned to the strange dangers in the house.

As the story progresses, Derleth presents his interpretation of the Mythos. Keep in mind, “The Gable Window” was originally intended for magazine publication, and not necessarily to an audience that would be immediately familiar with any of the preceeding Mythos fiction, so this is a point he tends to bring up more often and more explicitly in his 1940s and 1950s fiction to introduce it to new audiences; when reading chunks of his fiction at once, it can get a bit repetitive:

It was the old credo of the force of light against the force of darkness, or at least, so I took it to be. Did it matter whether you called it God and the Devil, or the Elder Gods and the ancient Ones, Good and Evil or such names as the Nodens, Lord of the Great Abyss, the only named Elder God, or these of the Great Old Ones—the idiot god, Azathoth, that amorphous blight of nethermost confusion which blasphemes and bubbles at the center of all infinity; Yog-Sothoth, the all-in-one and one-in-all, subject to neither the laws of time nor of space, co-existent with all time and con-terminous with space; Nyarlathotep, the messenger of the Ancient Ones; Great Cthulhu, waiting to rise again from hidden R’lyeh in the depths of the sea; the unspeakable Hastur, Lord of the Interstellar Spaces; Shub-Niggurath, the black goat of the woods with a thousand young?

August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 83

Derleth was capable of subtlety in his fiction and the slow and careful development of mood, but this recital or regurgitation of blasphemous names and casting the whole implicitly complex artificial mythology into a Manichaean dichtomy is not an example of it. This tendency to cram everything into a story is very fannish, but in the case of this story it also serves as build-up for the next section: the reader is basically given a crash course on the Mythos so that they can be prepped to see where the story is heading. Mythos fans can pat themselves on the back for catching the references, and new readers can at least sort of follow along.

In portraying the Mythos this way, Derleth also repeats many of the inherent prejudices in Mythos fiction in brief and in miniature. For example:

There were also more recognizable human beings, however distorted—stunted and dwarfed Oreintals living in a cold place, to judge by their attire, and a race born of miscegenation, with certain characteristics of the batrachian beings, yet unmistakably human.

August Derleth, “The Gable Window” in The Survivor and Others 90

The “stunted and dwarfed Orientals” are probably the Tcho-Tcho; the “race born of msicegenation” probably the inhabitants of Innsmouth. It’s notable that Derleth is more explicit in his language here than Lovecraft ever was in “The Shadow over Innsmouth,” and he gets even more explicit on the next page when he writes: “Deep Ones together with humans of partly similar origin: hybrid white” (91). The dry technical nature of the language robs the idea of Innsmouth hybrids of their mystery and mystique; he might as well be describing a creole colony…and that kind of misses the entire point of Lovecraft’s story. “Innsmouth” presented miscegnation (without ever using the word) as the intended accepted explanation for why the people of Innsmouth were hated and feared by their neighbors; racial discrimination was the red herring that concealed the much weirder revelation that the horror wasn’t a mixed race Pacific Islander or Asian community, but something altogether less homo sapiens.

Like many of Lovecraft’s stories, there isn’t an excess of plot. The use of the journal excerpts allows Derleth to indulge himself a bit in describing exotic landscapes and beings, and to build mood. The result is something of an orgy of evidence for the Mythos, touching on many different entities and places, some of which would be unfamiliar to Mythos fans. Yet at the same time, there’s a certain laziness to Derleth’s approach. Why would the words that activate the glass from Leng be “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn?” That is the motto of the Cthulhu cult in “The Call of Cthulhu,” but here Derleth uses it where another writer of a more mundane demonology might have used “abracadabra.”

Pedantic nitpicking aside, “The Gable Window” comes to a well-telegraphed end…and a relatively light legacy. Readers of “The Murky Glass” in Saturn might have been intrigued by the idea of an extraterrestrial glass that showed alien worlds, which has had its fair number of variations in fantasy already (e.g. “The Wonderful Window” by Lord Dunsany), but Mythos fans took very little notice of it. Derleth introduces the Sand-Dwellers in this story, for example, but never used or referenced them elsewhere again, and very few other authors have picked up the threads of this story (most notably Adam Niswander in his 1998 novel The Sand Dwellers). The biggest impact the story had has been on the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game, which gladly incorporated both the Glass from Leng and the Sand-Dwellers into its version of the Mythos, and has continued to make some small use of them in every edition since.

While it is impossible to say if Derleth himself was unsatisfied with “The Gable Window” as written, but there is the suggestion that he might have been inspired to make another attempt:

This glass also has attributes similar to the tower window in The Lurker at the Threshold, which Derleth derived from Lovecraft’s “The Rose Window” prose fragment. Referring to the fragment as the “notes relative to the mysterious window or ‘carved surface with convex glass circle seven inches in diameter in centre’ related primarily to a story to be set on ‘Central Hill, Kingsport’ in the ancient house of ‘Edward Orne,'” Derleth admits how, “This story remains in essence to be written, since not enough was borrowed from this set of notes to invalidate a second story; and I mean to write it, possibly in novel length, time and circumstances permitting, under the title The Watchers Out of Time” (“Unfinished Manuscripts”).

John Haefele, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 228

Derleth would not live long enough to finish “The Watchers Out of Time,” but it may well be that the fragment of a story he did write owes something to “The Gable Window,” since he felt he hadn’t quite exhausted the possibilities of the glass from Leng. One had to wonder if the massive spread of televisions in United States homes after World War II played any influence in what was, in many ways, an eldritch audiovisual receiver.

Taken as a whole, “The Murky Glass”/”The Gable Window” represents much of what has soured Derleth’s reputation among Lovecraft fans and scholars: it is neither a terrible or a terrific weird tale, but a relatively average story that remixes some very familiar tropes and adds a smorgasboard of Mythos references, in addition to a somewhat preachy version of Derleth’s particular take on the Mythos (although it leaves out the elemental associations). Perhaps most damning, in every publication it was presented as a joint work with Lovecraft, who had nothing to do with it. Derleth was a competent weird fictioneer, and that’s what this story was intended to be when it was written with Weird Tales in mind: the Mythos as a reliable product, with Lovecraft’s name as a marketing draw.

Which is probably the most damning thing. Lovecraft was an auteur who took painstaking efforts with his stories, and whether or not you like his person or his prose, his stories represent a great deal of work from the initial plotting to the craft of writing. Derleth, by comparison, was much more restricted in the time and energy he could or would devote to his weird fiction, and while the stories might have been passable to pulp audiences in the 1950s, they are consistently outshone by Lovecraft’s actual fiction, and Derleth’s conception of the Mythos is shown to be much more limited and imperfect than that of his friend…as though viewed through a murky glass.

“The Murky Glass” was published in Saturn May 1957, and was not published again under that title. “The Gable Window” has been published in multiple anthologies and collections of Lovecraft and Derleth’s Mythos fiction, including The Watchers Out of Time (2008, Del Rey).

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

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