Her Letters To Lovecraft: Hazel Heald

I am very sorry that I did not keep his letters, but moving around from place to place made it impossible. As some of them were personal I did not wish them to be around for others to read perhaps after I left this earthly life. Letters are sometimes left that seem sacred to the owners, but others see it in a different light.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 31 Mar 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Hazel Drake Heald was arguably H. P. Lovecraft’s most successful and prolific revision client. Between 1932 and 1937, five weird tales appeared under the name of Hazel Heald, the last of them being published only a month or so after his death, and all of them having Lovecraft’s hand in them to a greater or lesser extent. Yet for all that, relatively little is known about their correspondence: Lovecraft does not appear to have kept her letters, and she did not keep his. So once again we are left with a bit of detective-work, piecing together what we can of their relationship through Lovecraft and Heald’s other correspondence…and the framework of their relationship seems built around the timeline of their stories:

In this same year, 1932, I formed a little New England writers’ club of my own, and one of my members, a divorcee was very anxious to succeed in the weird writing field. She sent me an original manuscript with a very passable plot, yet told unconvincingly and amateurishly. I let Lovecraft read it when next he came over to our house on Pearl Street, and he agreed that it did have possibilities.

I wrote to the Cambridge, Massachusetts, club-member and told her about H.P.L., adding that he, too, was divorced. Would she like to have him look over her manuscript, “The Man of Stone”? She would! So I gave Lovecraft a note of introduction to Hazel Heald and another chapter in his life was soon taking place.
—Muriel C. Eddy, “The Gentleman from Angell Street” 22-23

I was a beginner and happened to be lucky enough to find HPL who certainly was the best to be found. He was a severe critic but I knew that if I finally suited him in my work that the editor would usually accept it. For example— I had to rewrite “Out of the Eons” six times before he was completely satisfied!
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 25 Mar 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

In 1932, Hazel Heald was 36 years old, divorced, and working as a clerk or bookkeeper; but she had aspirations to be a writer. Her friend Muriel Eddy put her in touch with H. P. Lovecraft. We do not know exactly when and how Lovecraft and Heald began to correspond, although it seems likely to have been early 1932. The first mention of one of their stories in Lovecraft’s published correspondence is from August 1932 (Essential Solitude 2.497), in reference to “Winged Death”—but the first published story was “The Man of Stone,” which hit the stands in September of that year.

Given publishing times in the pulps, this tells us two things: that at least two stories had been written prior to September 1932, and that the stories seem not to have been submitted directly to Weird Tales—because “The Man of Stone” was published at Wonder Stories, and “Winged Death” was first submitted to Harry Bates at Strange Tales of Mystery & Terror. If Lovecraft followed his normal mode for revision clients, their initial letters would have involved many notes on the story or stories involved, genteel discussion of rates and terms, and suggestions for where and how to market the story. Having been subject to the capricious whims of Farnsworth Wright in the past, it wouldn’t be surprising if Lovecraft initially recommended other pulps who might pay more, and more promptly, than his “old standard.”

In September 1932, Lovecraft took advantage of a special low-cost ticket to visit Montreal and Quebec (Sep 2-6). Traveling on the cheap, Lovecraft gave little thought and less money to food and amenities:

Early the following Tuesday morning, before I had gone to work, Howard arrived back from Quebec. I have never before nor since seen such a sight. folds of skin hanging froma  skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, sensitive artist’s hands and fingers nothing but claws. The man was dead except for his nerves, on which he was functioning. that evening he had a dinner appointment in Somerville with a woman for whom he was doing some revision, and he had plans for things he wanted to do during the day.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 59

The dinner appointment was with Hazel Heald. Muriel Eddy gives her version of events:

She invited him up to her house for Sunday supper and arranged to have everything that H.P.L. liked best on the menu. they ate by candlelight, and he was greatly intrigued by her thoughtfulness in not having a household of people to greet him. He used to say he could think better when there were not too many people around to disturb his train of thought.

He tactfully explained to Hazel that her story, though very good, really needed a little touching up here and there, something to stir the reader’s imagination. Would she allow him to do it for her? He’d consider it an honor and a privilege. She agreed.
—Muriel Eddy, “The Gentleman from Angell Street” 23

Eddy must have her dates wrong, because by September 1932 “The Man of Stone” was already written and accepted by Hugo Gernsback at Wonder Stories. But they might well have discussed other revisions, since one had already been submitted and accepted. Heald would describe their revision process in this way:

Lovecraft helped me on this story as much as on the others, and did actually rewrite paragraphs. He would criticize various paragraphs and pencil remarks beside them, and make me rewrite them until they pleased him. I certainly slaved on that story—my first! But all of my later stories he revised in the same way. I was so elated when it was accepted. They said I would have to send them a photograph of myself. I had special pictures taken, then when the magazine came out, there was a caricature of myself that even my mother wouldn’t recognize! I felt so hurt that the readers would think of me like that, and HPL was a good one to ease that hurt in his kind way. He said that no one ever recognized themselves from their artist’s drawing. He also advised me to get a lawyer for the payment of my check.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 30 Sep 1944, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

While Lovecraft does not discuss any specific meetings with Heald in his letters, in her own letters she suggests that he made at least one, if not more visits to her corner of Massachusetts:

I was interested in Paul Cook’s account of Lovecraft’s Boston visit, and how he made him rest up before coming over to my house. He certainly did not act tired, and ate very well, although Cook said he gave him a good meal before he came. I wonder if he thought that he would be starved at my house? He seemed to enjoy himself a lot. Soon after that he came again, and we visited all of the museums together. That was where I conceived the idea for OUT OF THE EONS.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 14 Oct 1944, MSS Wisconsin Historical Society

It is not clear which museums they might have visited, or when this might have occurred, although both the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the Semitic Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts are possibilities, with collections of Egyptian artifacts and mummies that might have inspired the fictional Cabot Museum.

“Out of the Æons” might have been conceived over dinner in early September, but “The Horror in the Museum” was finished by October:

I’ve just ghost-written a tale for a client in a fashion amounting virtually to original composition—about a waxwork museum or chamber of horrors where there is a rumour that not all of the fabulous monsters displayed are artificial. I’ve included Tsathoggua among the blasphemies.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Oct 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 394

In any case, Farnsworth Wright accepted “The Horror in the Museum” by mid-November 1932 (DS 397)—but by February 1933 a problem had arisen where Gernsback did not pay Heald for “The Man of Stone” (DS 404). At this point, Lovecraft had written at least three stories with or for Heald (“The Man of Stone,” “Winged Death,” and “The Horror in the Museum”), and one had been accepted and published, one rejected, and one accepted pending publication; but we don’t know if Heald had paid Lovecraft for any of them. Without their letters, we don’t know the exact details of their business arrangements—but the lack of payment from Gernsback could not have helped the business side of their relationship.

Still, Lovecraft must have had some confidence in his client, because by the time “The Horror in the Museum” hit the stands, “Out of the Æons” was written, submitted, and accepted by Weird Tales:

Glad you enjoyed the Witch House and Museum story. Another tale which I revised for the “Museum” author, and which Wright has accepted, brings in von Juntz and his black book as almost the central theme. It concerns a mummy found in the crypt of a Cyclopean stone temple of fabulous antiquity; volcanically upheaved from the sea.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 24 Jul 1933, A Means to Freedom 2.619

Weird Tales paid only on publication, and in the 1930s as the Depression worsened, often the payment was long after publication. It seems quite likely that by this point, Heald must have been in arrears to Lovecraft—and perhaps found a way to make up for it in kind:

Meanwhile (my hatred of the typewriter being stronger every day) I have had a delinquent client type the story I wrote last August, & have started the carbon on the rounds of the gang—beginning with Dwyer.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 8 Nov 1933, Letters to J. Vernon Shea &c. 175

I lately had a client type my story of last August—”The Thing on the Doorstep” (which isn’t very satisfactory), & am circulating the carbon amongst the gang (you’ll get it in time).
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 12 Nov 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 85

HPL helped me in return for typing his tale “Dreams at Witch House.” I also typed his “The Thing on the Doorstep.” His writing was familiar to me, so it was much easier than for strangers.
—Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 31 Mar 1937, MSS Wisconsin Historical society

Heald also eventually, at Lovecraft’s suggestion, contacted New York lawyer Ione Weber to sue Gernsback for her money, and got it by November 1933 (DS 404).

Although Lovecraft does not mention it, “Winged Death” must eventually have been submitted to Wright at Weird Tales and accepted for publication; it hit the stands in the March 1934 issue…and that appears to have been pretty much the end of the professional side of Heald and Lovecraft’s relationship:

“Winged Death” is pretty much a ghost-written Ech-Pi-El-ism. All that honest Mrs. Heald had to start with was a cloudy idea about somebody killing somebody with bugs. Then she got a medical friend to shed some light on poisonous African insects, & decided to give the tale an African cast. That was all I had to go on. The plot—with the idea of transferred personality & the returning & ceiling-writing death-envoy—is entirely my own. But it doesn’t pay to do this sort of work—when one could have just as good chances of full pay with a piece nominally as well as actually one’s own. I’ve cut it out now—though the last two reliques of my collaboration (one more Heald opus & the collaboration with Sultan Malik) are yet to be printed.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS 544

The “one more Heald opus” is presumably “Out of the Æons,” which Wright would hold onto without publishing (or paying for) until 1935. Still, though Lovecraft gave up ghostwriting and fiction revision as a business in 1934, his stories with Heald had a bit of an afterlife that they would have discussed in their letters: “The Horror in the Museum” was reprinted in the Not at Night anthology Terror by Night (1934), and reprinted in the Not at Night Omnibus (1937).

As far as the writing of “Out of the Æons” goes, Lovecraft would write when it was published:

Regarding the scheduled “Out of the Æons”—I should say I did have a hand in it…..I wrote the damn thing! The original museum-mummy story submitted for revision was so utterly lousy (some crap about a Peruvian miner trapped underground) that I had to discard it altogether & prepare a fresh tale. But it’s really foolish to attempt jobs so extensive, when with the same amount of work one could write an acknowledged story of one’s own. This is the last collaboration of the sort I shall ever attempt—indeed, I’ve turned a deaf ear to all further suggestions from Sultan Malik, Mrs. Heald, Kid Bloch, & others.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, DS 594

Glad you like “Out of the Æons”—which is, as I may have mentioned, virtually an original story of mine. All that survives from the initial Heald outline (worthy Mme. H. never bothered to write out any actual text for it!) is the basic idea of a living brain discovered in an ancient mummy.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Apr 1935, DS 603

Ironically, fan response to Heald’s stories in Weird Tales were often more vocal than for Lovecraft’s contributions under his own name.

We can only speculate as to what might be in Lovecraft and Heald’s letters between 1934 and 1937; her name is notably absent from his 1934 list of correspondents to whom he was sending postcards on his travels (Collected Essays 5.267), but we know she wrote to him while he was in Florida in 1934 (thanks to a surviving envelope), so it’s likely they would have discussed their lives, travels, and writing. The best evidence for their continued correspondence was that in January 1937, Lovecraft still had a current address for her when fan John Weir asked for submissions for a new fanzine:

Sorry I can’t dig up any more material at the moment—am wallowing in a morass of tasks & staggering under what seems like a variant of grippe. Hope you can assemble sufficient copy for #1, & am glad you have an illustration for future issues.[…] Glad you’ve received at least some material from those I recommended. Come to think of it, you might get a short story (fairly long as such things go) from Mrs. Hazel Heald, 15 Carter St. Newtonville, Mass. Ask her for “In the Gulfs of N’Logh” or some other tale which didn’t land professionally.
—H. P. Lovecraft to John Weir, 28 Jan 1937, MSS. John Hay Library

“Some other tale” is where things get interesting. In her letters to August Derleth and elsewhere, Hazel Heald mentions “In the Gulf of N’Logh” (193?) and “Lair of Fungous Death” (193?), and her story “An Heir of the Mesozoic” was eventually published by Weir in his fanzine Fantasmagoria. Were any of these were stories that Lovecraft had a hand in, either through offering revision comments or fully ghostwriting, between 1932 and 1934? We don’t know, but their very existence suggests a correspondence that was more busied and complicated than just the four stories mentioned above would indicate—much like his correspondence with another revision client, Zealia Bishop.

H. P. Lovecraft died on 15 March 1937; it’s not clear when Heald became aware of his passing, but she wrote to Weird Tales shortly after:

Hazel Heald writes from Newtonville, Massachusetts: “I want to express my sorrow in the passing of H. P. Lovecraft. He was a friend indeed to the struggling author, and many have started to climb the ladder of success with his kind assistance. To us who really knew him it is a sorrow that mere words cannot express. His was the helping hand that started me in the writers’ game and gave me courage to carry on under the gravest difficulties. But we must try to think that he is ‘just away’ on one of his longest journeys and that some day we will meet him again in the Great Beyond.”
Weird Tales, “The Eyrie” Jun 1937

Mrs. Hazel Heald writes from Newtonville, Massachusetts: “A brain like H. P. Lovecraft’s seldom was found—uncanny in its intelligence. He was ever searching for more knowledge, gleaning by endless hours of study a richer and fuller understanding of people and of life. Being a great traveler, he reveled in the study of old cities and their hidden lore and would walk many miles to inspect some historic spot. He was a real friend to all who knew him, always ready to give his valuable time to aid some poor struggling author—a true guiding star. He was very partial to dumb animals, especially cats, signifying that interest in several of his tales. He would step out of his way to pat some forlorn alley cat and give it a friendly word, and the kittens of a neighbor furnished him unbounded enjoyment. He was an ardent lover of architecture and all the fine arts, and a day spent in a museum with him was time well spent. By endless hours of toil eh worked far into the night giving the world masterpieces of weird fiction, sacrificing his health for his work. Lovecraft was a gift to the world who can never be replaced—Humanity’s Friend.”
Weird Tales, “The Eyrie” Aug 1937

In the May 1937 issue of Weird Tales, Heald’s fifth story was published: “The Horror in the Burying Ground.” Without Lovecraft around to comment, we know nothing of when or how it was written, although it is popularly supposed from internal evidence that he had a hand in it. If he did write it, or at least revise it, sometime around 1932-1933, it would be one more example of the fruitfulness of their creative endeavors…and of the quiet failures and rejections that were masked by their successful sales.

My HORROR IN THE BURYING GROUND was rejected once by Wright, then several years later I rewrote it in several places and he accepted it. He said I had too much dialect to read easily.
Hazel Heald to August Derleth, 14 Oct 1944, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Little is known of Hazel Heald’s later life; her letters to August Derleth fall off after 1937, but pick up again in the early 1940s as he sought to obtain permission to republish her stories among Lovecraft’s revision tales. She continued to attempt a literary career, mentioning efforts to publish stories in the pulps without success, but for regular employment was forced to be a housekeeper.

Heald 1944Hazel Heald to Winfield Townley Scott, 8 Sep 1948, MSS. John Hay Library 

What did Lovecraft mean to Hazel Heald? What little correspondence that survives from Heald in library archives is entirely because of her connection to Lovecraft, in one form or another. In truth, we might not remember Heald at all if not for her position as Lovecraft’s revision client, and it could well be she knew that it was the Lovecraft connection which was responsible for the small attention she got from fans like John Weir and editors like August Derleth. Unlike Zealia Bishop or Adolphe de Castro, she never seems to have had the resources to consider seriously self-publishing, didn’t have the writing chops to get accepted by commercial magazines, and had no connection with fanzines beyond Weir’s Fantasmagoria. She sold a couple manuscripts to a dedicated fan, and apparently kept in touch with the Eddys, but that is about as far as the Lovecraft connection took her.


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 Harlem

Late night in Harlem on a Friday and the streets more full than at rush hour. Tommy Tester cherished the closeness, to his father and to all the bodies on the sidewalks, in their cars, riding buses, perched on stoops. The traffic and human voices merged into a terrific buzzing that seemed to lift Tommy and Otis, a song that accompanied them—carried them—all the way home.
—Victor LaValle, The Ballad of Black Tom 36

Places have character in the fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Dunwich and Arkham, Kingsport and Innsmouth, these are Lovecraft country and as much a part of the stories as any of the human characters taking part in the narrative. New York City was a character in Lovecraft’s stories too—in “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” and “Cool Air”—yet there are parts of the city conspicuous by their absence. There is no Harlem in Lovecraft’s New York tales, scarcely any mention of Harlem in any of his fiction.

Lovecraft’s Mythos is expressly not a mythic white space. People of color exist, and are subject to the common contemporary prejudices that Lovecraft knew. They are supporting characters, often derided and stereotyped. Because there is a New York City in Lovecraft’s stories, we can assume there is a Harlem somewhere in it, and that African-Americans live there. Harlem as the center of the Harlem Renaissance, though; Harlem as the cultural center of African-Americans in New York; that Harlem is not present. Lovecraft never tried to capture the soul of Harlem in his fiction, and nor did many writers that came after him in the Mythos.

2016. Enter Victor LaValle with The Ballad of Black Tom. The novella is a re-working of “The Horror at Red Hook,” but this time Harlem is present. Tommy Tester and his father live there, it is their home, their haven, though even they don’t know all of its secrets. LaValle’s book expressly addresses the systemic racism and discrimination of 1920s New York, tries to tie it in to the fabric of Lovecraft’s stories and the geography of New York.

Even then, LaValle struggles with the portrayal of Harlem. The geography is right, but the descriptions are spare, often less than compelling, and mostly avoids major landmarks or descriptions of street life. “The Horror at Red Hook” takes place mostly in Brooklyn, so for much of The Ballad of Black Tom the main characters are not in Harlem itself, and consequently there is less opportunity to develop the character of the place. It isn’t Harlem as Lovecraft would have seen it—but then, what would that have looked like? What would it be like for a white man, known for his racism and cosmic horror fiction, to visit the Black Mecca of the United States?

Lovecraft in Harlem

At the elevated station at 6th Ave. and 42nd St. I lost my fellow Anglo-Saxon, whose home is far to the north in the semi-African jungles of Harlem […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 18 May 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 95

The Great Migration saw thousands of African-Americans move from the rural South to the cities of the North. In Manhattan, the neighborhood of Harlem became a center of black demographics and, as the 1920s wore on, black culture. Harlem became the geographic center of and gave its name to the Harlem Renaissance, a literary, artistic, and intellectual movement that celebrated the best that African-Americans had to offer. Many white people during this time were more interested in Harlem’s nightlife, the cabarets, clubs, speakeasies, and sexual underworld which rose to legendary proportions during Prohibition, as chronicled in Carl Van Vechten’s Nigger Heaven (1926).

H. P. Lovecraft first visited Harlem in 1922. The native of Providence, Rhode Island had been invited to visit New York City by Sonia H. Greene, an amateur journalist who wished to disprove some of Lovecraft’s prejudices by broadening his horizons (Ave Atque Vale 148). The thirty-two-year-old weird writer, who had not yet made his first professional publication, traipsed through much of the city, visiting museums, parks, admiring the remaining old architecture, and visiting with friends such as James F. Morton, a progressive-minded white man who had authored The Curse of Race Prejudice (1906), was a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and whose apartment was in Harlem.

Morton and Lovecraft had “met” in 1915, where they ended up on opposite sides of an argument over race and prejudice in the amateur journals In A Minor Key and The Conservative (see “Concerning the Conservative”). Disagreement led eventually to correspondence, and then to friendship—though they never came to agreement on the issue of racial equality, they enjoyed the debate, and had other common interests in amateur journalism and writing.

There is no indication that Lovecraft stayed long or delved deep into Harlem on that first visit, or any subsequent visit to Morton’s, but he would later write to his aunt:

After a period of discussion & repartee, which Mrs. Long said reminded her of the epigrammatic paradoxes of Oscar Wilde & Whistler, the gang adjourned to Morton’s chaotic apartment in Harlem. I had never before seen Morton’s abode, & naturally I was interested. He dwells in a street now overrun by niggers of the cleaner & less offensive sort—decayed, but still retaining the outlines of its former beauty. There are pleasing trees on both sides, & the architecture of the houses is highly prepossessing. No. 211—the Morton mansion—is an old brick single house owned by an elderly eccentric named Edwin C. Walker; a spacious & unkempt edifice, thick with dust, & with half the rooms unused. Morton’s room is on the top floor, reached by dark & winding stairs, & is remarkably neat though atrociously dusty.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 13 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.64

Walker was a noted freethinker who had founded the interracial Sunrise Club in 1889 and served as its secretary until his death in 1931; he and Morton were both advocates of free love, although it is not clear if this was in any way involved with how Morton came to live in Harlem. Nor did Lovecraft have go to Harlem to be aware of it, on the same trip he visited the Bronx Zoo:

Before the chimpanzee cage; gazing with rapt interest, & unconscious of the time, we noted two huge, jet-black buck niggers; one of them—curiously enough—in army uniform with a very businesslike trench helmet.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.79

The United States Army was still segregated in 1922, and most troops were relegated to non-combat roles. An exception was the 369th Infantry Regiment, which gained popular renown during World War I as the Harlem Hellfighters. The unit was demobilized in 1918, but the segregated 15th New York National Guard Regiment from which it was formed continued. It is possible this was a member of that unit.

Lovecraft’s eye was mainly captured by the architecture, although on subsequent visits he would pay more attention to the inhabitants. The sheer numbers of black people living together in New York was amazing to Lovecraft—while Providence was not legally segregated in the sense of the Jim Crow South at that time, Lovecraft had always lived in the predominantly white portions of the city, though he was aware that there were black neighborhoods:

I hardly wonder that my racial ideas seem bigoted to one born & reared in the vicinity of cosmopolitan New York […] Over on the “West Side”, it is very cosmopolitan, but the East Side child might as well be in the heart of Old England so far as racial environment is concerned. Slater Avenue school was near my home, & the only non-Saxons were niggers whose parents work for our families or cart our ashes, & who consequently know their place.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 6 Dec 1915, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 47

To put the demographics in perspective, the 1920 census put the total population of Providence at 237,595; in New York City in 1920, the black population alone was 152,467—and by 1930, there would be more African-Americans in New York than there were people of all races combined in Providence (1920 Census, 1930 Census). For a white man who had spent probably his entire life without seeing more than a handful of black people at a time, visiting Harlem would have been an eye-opening experience. He would visit New York, and Harlem, again.

In 1924, Lovecraft would return to New York to marry Sonia H. Greene, and to take up residence in the city. It was a tumultuous time in the writer’s life, as he struggled with domesticity, inability to find work, his wife’s illness, financial struggles, and finally separation as she left to take a job in the Midwest, leaving Lovecraft alone in a Brooklyn apartment. One of Lovecraft’s pleasures during this period were his outings with ‘the Boys,’ or as they became more formally known, the Kalem Club—a loose association of writers who would gather at each other’s houses and apartments to converse on every subject from poetry to politics. Morton held his share of the meetings:

Sonny [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.] and I settled the fate of literature betwixt us and parted early in the evening—with the understanding that The Boys meet up there on Thursday, August 7th, if Mrs. Long is well enough to stand the racket. Otherwise we convene at Morton’s dump in Bantu and barbaric Harlem, our first meeting there, by the way.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 1 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.145

In the evening The Boys met at Morton’s—up in niggerville—and had a great time despite the African cast of the contiguous terrain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 20 Aug 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.147

Few accounts of these meetings survive outside of Lovecraft’s letters, although fellow Kalem-club member George C. Kirk once recalled:

August 15. Friday. Went to a party in black belt last night. If Lovecraft is a prince James F. Morton Jr. is a king. (Ave Atque Vale 223)

As time went on, Lovecraft found himself in Harlem again for other purposes than visiting Morton’s. Accounts are generally few and far-between; Lovecraft was a teetotal, against interracial relationships, and disliked jazz, and so appears to have had zero interest in the more “touristy” parts of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten might have showed him.

Saturday was a hectic round of the shops—both Harlem & Brooklyn—on Kirk’s behalf; & in the evening we parted laden with vases, candlesticks, sofa pillows, steins, Japanese panels, & the like—which Kirk bore to his room whilst I returned to 169 [Clinton St.] for slumber.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 22 Jan 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.239

However, for the most part during this period Lovecraft was only aware of Harlem from stops on the subway station at 125th street and Lenox Avenue. These were unsegregated cars, as Lovecraft would attest to an aunt who had experienced Jim Crow conditions in Georgia:

The separation of people & niggers at the stations is an excellent idea—which ought to be practiced on the Harlem subway trains here—& it would please me always to alight at the quaint & picturesque town of WHITE.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 10 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.243

Lovecraft’s experience of encountering African-Americans on New York subways is among his more odious anecdotes of living in New York, as evidenced by a trip to Pelham Bay Park:

It took an hour to get there; & since the train was uncrowded, we formed the highest expectations of the rural solitudes we were about to discover. Then came the end of the line—& disillusion. My Pete in Pegāna, but what crowds! And that is not the worst . . . . for upon my most solemn oath, I’ll be shot if three out of every four persons—nay, full nine out of every ten—weren’t flabby, pungent, grinning, chattering niggers! Help! It seems that the direct communication of this park with the ever thickening Harlem black belt has brought its inevitable result, & that a once lovely soundside park is from now on to be given over to Georgia camp-meetings & outings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Mah lawdy, but dey was some swell high-yaller spo’ts paradifyin’ roun’ dat afternoon! Wilted by the sight, we did no more than take a side path to the shore & back & reënter the subway for the long homeward ride—waiting to find a train not too reminiscent of the packed hold of one of John Brown’s Providence merchantmen on the middle passage from the Guinea coast to Antigua or the Barbadoes.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 6 July 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.310

It is worth pointing out that Lovecraft was more vocally racist in his letters to his aunts than to pretty much any of his other correspondents; whether this is because they shared his prejudices or that he was simply more relaxed about writing to them is unclear. The tendency to slip into farcical vernacular English and African-American dialect is typical of Lovecraft—he was a student of dialect and did the same thing for many accents, in New England, New York, the South, and elsewhere in his letters, often playing for comedic effect—but even so, the naked prejudice on display shows how far out of his element Lovecraft felt. In large part, the degree of prejudice evidenced in Lovecraft’s few mentions of Harlem is because race is what set Harlem apart, at least in his mind.

The New York adventure ended in 1926. Separated from his wife, still with no job, and having had his apartment broken into and clothes stolen, Lovecraft finally packed his things and left New York to return to Providence. For the rest of his life, Lovecraft would maintain a detestation for the city—with its vast hordes of immigrants, Jews, and African-Americans. The rhetoric of Lovecraft’s prejudice increased during the rising tide of antisemitism that accompanied the rise to power of Adolf Hitler, as can be seen in one of Lovecraft’s more egregious statements:

I’d like to see Hitler wipe Greater New York clean with poison gas—giving masks to the few remaining people of Aryan culture (even if of Semitic ancestry). The place needs fumigation & a fresh start. (If Harlem didn’t get any masks, I’d shed no tears ….. & the same goes for the dago slums!)
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 12 Jun 1933, Letters to James F. Morton 325

Morton had by this point moved from Harlem to New Jersey, so Lovecraft wasn’t literally calling for his death, and the full horrors of Hitler’s policy of genocide were not understood when he came to power in 1933. The callous suggestion for mass murder is hyperbole, a statement about his dislike of New York as a whole. The quote is worse in hindsight, knowing as we do today about the Holocaust and Nazi Germany’s use of poison gas to murder millions. Lovecraft did not know about that—but it speaks to the depths of his antipathy to the multiracial, multicultural melting pot that he had failed to find a place in.

Yet Lovecraft also retained ties to the city in the form of friends like the Longs, and would revisit it several times during his travels. He would also write of the city to his friends. When one young correspondent considered visiting New York, Lovecraft provided a list of places to visit, and included:

Harlem negro district (sinister & fascinating—not a white face for blocks—Lenox Ave. subway to 125th St.—walk N.)
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 1 Jul 1927, Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei 128

The longest and most detailed account that Lovecraft ever gave of Harlem was to another young friend, a jazz pianist and aficionado of Duke Ellington:

Black Harlem—of possible interest to you as a source of sy[n]copated melody—is impressive to the Easterner chiefly on account of its size, since all the eastern towns have large African sections. To many westerners—as, for instance, a friend of mine in Appleton, Wisconsin, who never saw a nigger till he was in college—it would be quite stupefying. I don’t know whether there are any blacks in your part of the world or not—of, if so, how thick they are. In Harlem there must be about as many as there are in all the southern states put together—one realises it unpleasantly in the uptown Broadway subway, one of whose three branchings above 9th St. leads to the black belt. The Bronx trains are bad enough—packed solidly with bulbous-nosed or Mongoloid-faced Jews—but de Lenox Ab’noo trains sho’ ain’t no place fo’ no blond of any kind! Black Harlem itself I know largely from ‘bus windows—the coach lines from Providence passing down Lenox or upper 7th Ave. through the heart of the district. It is the extent which almost stupefies one…block after block after block…outdoing anything that Charleston or Richmond or Savannah or Atlanta or New Orleans can produce. You’d never think there were so many niggers in the world, or that there were so many denizens of New York that aren’t Jews! I’ll bet Senegal & Nigeria look white as compared with that zone from about 150th St. down to 125th & beyond. Africa pushes south all the time—crowding the Jews & impinging on the white Puerto-Ricans (who nosed out the Jews in their region about 1930) of upper 5th Ave. And yet this whole black colony scarcely dates from before 1913, when the blacks of “San Juan Hill” downtown were evicted to make room for the new Pennsylvania station. The dispossessed families found some cheap tenements in upper Harlem (then mainly Nordic-Aryan) & formed a nucleus—quickly spreading as the white families on their borders moved away. How far they will get, no one can tell. The Jews don’t retreat before them as rapidly as the Aryans did, but they begin to go when the blacks get very thick in a block. The northern rim of Central Park will probably check them & turn their spread eastward—where they’ll displace great Greek & Hungarian colonies. The most amusing parts of Harlem are where the rich blacks dwell—these being almost as neat & spruce as Aryan neighbourhoods. The houses include some of the most elegant reliques of the Stanford White period, & the prosperous professional Æethiops keep them spic & span! Amusing in another way are the shop windows of Lenox & 7th Aves. All the drug stores carry rabbit’s-foot luck charms, dream books, anti-kink fluid & pomade for the wool of dusky sheiks & sirens, & (also for the rites of Congolese coiffure) devices called “straightening-irons.” The clothing-stores feature gaudy & eccentric suits & flaming haberdashery. Sharp social distinctions are said to exist among the blacks—for example, West Indian negroes are disliked by the coons of the continental U.S. Some of the West Indians—who speak with a British accent & have an independent arrogance which grates on Southerners—despise the American blacks as much as the latter hate them. Portuguese negroes—so-called “Bravas” from the Cape Verde Islands, unpleasantly common in Providence & other southern New England ports—appear to be absent from nigger Harlem. While the black belt has no well-defined eastern limit, it is checked abruptly on the west by the rocky precipice of St. Nicholas Heights, atop which are the Gothic quadrangles of N.Y. City College (whose student body is almost solidly Jewish) & the streets of a rather passable & fairly Aryan neighbourhood amidst which can be found (overtaken & packed in among modern city blocks) the old country seat (built about 1800) of Alexander Hamilton, out of whose door he walked to his death on that fatal duel morning in 1804.
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 27 Mar 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 65-67

There is some excellent detail here—one would not normally look for a random white tourist in Harlem to comment on straightening irons—but it is notable that by 1934 Lovecraft had traveled much more widely, visiting as far south as Key West and as far east as New Orleans. He had seen segregated buses and work gangs down South, visited the Cuban enclave of Ybor City and the Hispanic old city of St. Augustine, and yet he still found Harlem fascinating in its own unique way.

There are a few more scattered references to Harlem in Lovecraft’s letters, but with no friends to visit and not living in the city himself, he does not appear to have visited the city except passing through on bus trips for the rest of his life. The exploitative image of Harlem that Carl Van Vechten and others portrayed of Harlem appear to have largely passed Lovecraft by. Yet that was not quite the end of the connections that Lovecraft had with Harlem.

Lovecraft and the Harlem Renaissance

The published letters and essays of H. P. Lovecraft include few mentions of any African-American writers or artists directly apart of the New Negro Movement or the Harlem Renaissance. This does not mean that Lovecraft was completely ignorant or unaffected by the work of such creatives—we know for example that Lovecraft was gifted a copy of Paul Morand’s Black Magic (1929) in 1931, and that book is illustrated by Harlem Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas. But the main works of that movement appear to have passed Lovecraft by.

This lack is particularly notable in his critical essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” first published in 1927. This survey of weird fiction misses contributions to horror fiction by black authors, including Harlem Renaissance writers like Zora Neale Hurston, whose anthropological writings on folklore such as Mules & Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938) would expand on subjects such as Haitian voodoo. Such a blind spot is understandable as Lovecraft explains in one letter:

Ordinarily voodoo & Yogi stuff leaves me cold, for I can’t feel enough closeness to savage or other non-Caucasian magic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 3 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 45

Lovecraft was not generally derogatory toward fiction written by African-Americans, and could even praise the efforts of individuals, but he simply had very little interest in the black point of view, and consequently read very little of such works.

By an odd coincidence, however, Lovecraft did have relationships with two individuals who were connected with the Harlem Renaissance. In 1921, Winifred Virginia Jackson and William Stanley Braithwaite established the B. J. Brimmer Company, which published a number of works by Harlem Renaissance artists such as Georgia Douglas Johnson’s Bronze: A Book of Verses (1922). 

Jackson was white, divorced, a poet and writer who sometimes contributed poems to W. E. B. du Bois’ The Crisis. She had met Lovecraft through amateur journalism in 1918, and they had collaborated on two stories together: “The Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos.” R. Alain Everts and George T. Wetzel in Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1977) repeated gossip that Jackson and Lovecraft may have been in a relationship, though there is no evidence of this in Lovecraft’s letters. The same source claimed that Jackson was the mistress of William Stanley Braithwaite, though there is no evidence for that either. Whatever the case, in 1921 Lovecraft met his future wife Sonia H. Greene, and his friendship with Jackson faded.

Braithwaite was mixed-race, but in the United States at that period that made him “colored.” Lovecraft was aware of him as a prominent Boston editor and critic, but did not become aware of his race until 1918, when he read a newspaper account of Braithwaite winning the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP, which occasioned a stunningly racist outburst (LRKO 112). Whatever Lovecraft’s feelings, they did not extend to discourtesy: a letter at the John Hay Library from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 February 1930, and is formal but cordial, and Lovecraft’s surviving letters to Jackson that mention Braithwaite praise him as a poetry critic.

Harlem in Lovecraft’s Fiction

The match had been between Kid O’Brien—a lubberly and now quaking youth with a most un-Hibernian hooked nose—and Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”. The negro had been knocked out, and a moment’s examination shewed us that he would permanently remain so.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1922)

Buck Robinson as a black boxer echoes Jack Johnson, the African-American heavyweight boxing champion (1908-1915) whose very existence caused white America to clamor for a “Great White Hope” to unseat him—and Lovecraft began writing this story in 1921, before he had gone to New York or seen Harlem. He had that much cultural knowledge of Harlem, as center of black population and black culture, to provide that detail. “The Harlem Smoke” is the only explicit reference to Harlem in Lovecraft’s fiction.

Which is a very weird absence when it is remembered that Lovecraft was writing fiction in New York, and those particular tales he wrote while living there—“The Shunned House,” “The Horror at Red Hook,” “He,” “In the Vault,” and “Cool Air”—were set in or take inspiration from his experiences in the city. The only reference to black people among these stories is a brief mention of “an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth” and “population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another,” in “The Horror at Red Hook,” which is set in Brooklyn.

The conspicuous absence of Harlem from Lovecraft’s fiction is somewhat characteristic. Lovecraft wasn’t shy about including depictions of race prejudice in his fiction, so since Lovecraft basically didn’t write anything about Harlem in his stories means he inadvertently avoided saying anything negative about that place and its inhabitants. There were none of the exaggerated or exploitative material about Harlem that was characteristic of white writers like Carl Van Vechten.

On the other hand, it is also something of a tradition of erasure. Because there is no Harlem in these stories, there are also very few black characters and almost nothing about black culture in the Lovecraft Mythos. So while Lovecraft managed to minimize saying anything explicitly racist about Harlem in his fiction, there is also literally nothing about Harlem for later writers to expand off of. Harlem in the Lovecraft Mythos is effectively a blank slate, on which anyone might write anything.

So they did.

Harlem in the Cthulhu Mythos

Almost all of Lovecraft’s contemporaries at Weird Tales and his correspondents were white; the bulk of those did not live in or near New York City. At the time of his death in 1937, Lovecraft was an obscure author who never achieved widespread or enduring publication; his fanbase was small but loyal and vocal. Two in particular, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, sought to get Lovecraft’s fiction and letters into hardback publication, and to this end they formed the small publisher Arkham House—and managed through legal wrangling and much self-advertisement to establish a near-monopoly on Mythos fiction until Derleth died in 1971.

Which is to say that it took several decades for Harlem to really make any substantial appearance in the Mythos after Lovecraft’s death, but by the time that it did, the United States was in many ways a different place. Jim Crow and segregation had ended in the 1960s through decisions like Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and passage of the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968. The legal successes of the Civil Rights Movement did not translate into financial or social equality, as African-American science fiction fans, writers, and artists remained in the minority, though increasingly they were given opportunities to make their talents known and voices heard.

This is the context in which The Ballad of Black Tom was written: faced with a mostly blank slate, trying to address a notable gap in Lovecraft’s corpus. Not just the absence of Harlem itself, but the absence of an African-American point of view. While LaValle’s Harlem may not come through as visceral as Lovecraft depicts it in his letters, he does succeed in depicting a Harlemite, and a much-neglected viewpoint.

Victor LaValle was not the only writer in the wider Cthulhu Mythos to attempt and address this gap. The most extensive effort to bring Harlem into the Mythos has been, not in short fiction, but in tabletop roleplaying. Chaosium, Inc. produced the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game in 1981, based on Lovecraft’s fiction and with a primary focus on characters assuming roles in the period in which Lovecraft’s fiction is set (1920s-1930s). Settings for this game include New York with books like Secrets of New York (2005, Chaosium), and entire third-party settings such as Harlem Unbound (2017, Darker Hue Studios). In these works, the focus is much less on Lovecraft’s prejudices and more “filling in the gaps” by addressing both what he did and especially what he did not write about. As editor Chris Spivey put it:

There’s a feeling of possibility in the air, like never before. But even in this land of promise, Harlem’s time is fleeting. While classes, sexuality, and cultures collide, Lovecraftian horrors lurk beneath the streets, creeping through dark alleys and hidden doorways into the Dreamlands. What Great Old One shattered our reality? Can you hold it together and keep the Mythos at bay for one more song? (8)

There are differences between Secrets of New York and Harlem Unbound. The former is a product for a general audience; that is, the players and their characters are not assumed to be of any particular race or ethnicity—while Harlem Unbound focuses in on the black experience in Harlem, and while the players may by of any race, with the assumption that the player characters at least are going to be black Harlemites, like Tommy Tester in The Ballad of Black Tom. In that respect, Harlem Unbound has the heavy lifting to do of trying to show what Harlem was like, during Lovecraft’s life, as well as to find angles with which to connect Harlem with the Mythos.

For writers like Victor LaValle and Chris Spivey, Harlem is unclaimed territory, a blank space on the map where they can imagine and write their own stories. Yet it is not a place without a history; books have been written about Harlem, movies set there, contemporary street maps and photographs are available, and not a few stories left from people that remember what it was like when they were children there—if not during the 20s and 30s, then in later decades. Plenty of colorful detail where a savvy writer can fit in some aspect of the Mythos, either one dreamed up by Lovecraft or a brand new horror that ties into the greater framework.

Which is the promise and possibility of the Cthulhu Mythos and Harlem going forward: having been neglected for so long, we have arrived at a point where people of color can write and publish their own approach to what horrors might lurk in the shadows of Harlem, and how the Harlemites might deal with it. Which may ultimately be the way forward when it comes to Lovecraft’s fiction: to see and go beyond his personal limitations and prejudices, to explore the possibilities that his fiction offers, and to carve a new Mythos that can address the fears and experiences of all people.


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

Deeper Cut: William Stanley Braithwaite

Reflections upon the various sorts of unusual verse prevalent in this age, leads me to mention a new bard whose work I have not yet perused, but whose poetry was reviewed by Mr. William Stanley Braithwaite in a recent number of the BOSTON TRANSCRIPT.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Kleicomolo, Apr 1917, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner 99

In 1917, William Stanley Braithwaite was 39 years old and had been writing for the Boston Transcript for twelve years; that year he he would publish his fourth annual Anthology of Magazine Verse. Born from mixed-race parents, legal segregation in the United States of America decreed him a “Negro,” and throughout his life Braithwaite would experience discrimination because of his race—but he would also receive praise for his work as a poet, critic, editor, and publisher.

By 1917, H. P. Lovecraft was 27 years old and had finally emerged from his period of seclusion following the tumultuous period that had seen him lose his father, his family home, and fail to graduate highschool or go to college. The catalyst for Lovecraft’s re-emergence was amateur journalism, where he could find expression for his writing, poetry, criticism, and just plain interaction with other human beings, at first through letters and then increasingly in person.

It isn’t clear when Lovecraft first became aware of Braithwaite; the earliest reference in Lovecraft’s letters was in 1916 relating to Braithwaite’s The Poetry Review of America (LRK 43),which folded within a year. Braithwaite seems unlikely to have heard of Lovecraft before 1921-1922, in relation to certain poems that Braithwaite by Winifred Virginia Jackson that he wished to publish from Lovecraft’s amateur journal The Conservative. Lovecraft and Braithwaite are never known to have met in person, but by odd coincidence and due to common acquaintances with Lovecraft’s circle, including Clark Ashton Smith, George Sterling, and Winifred Virginia Jackson, Lovecraft and Braithwaite would briefly exchange letters.

William Stanley Braithwaite would be Lovecraft’s only known African-American correspondent.

Race can be impossible to judge in print; unless it is specifically mentioned, the individual prejudices of the reader have little to focus on. Such appears to be the case with H. P. Lovecraft. For however many years he was aware of Braithwaite as a poetry critic at the Boston Transcript or from other publications, he seems to have assumed that Braithwaite was white. Then in 1918, Lovecraft opened the newspaper and learned that William Stanley Braithwaite had won the Springarn medal—an annual award for African-Americans. Lovecraft’s response was perhaps his single most virulent outburst of racism ever put to paper.

Speaking of poetical reviewers—I have not yet recovered from the shock the newspaper gave me last night! At the First Baptist Church in this city, on Friday evening, there occurred the annual ceremony of the award of the “Spingarn Medal”, which is given to the member of the negro race who achieves the most notable success in ‘any field of elevated or honourable human endeavour’ during the year. At these impressive exercises, Gov. Beeckman of Rhode Island gracefully awarded the badge of African supremacy to the Boston poet, critic, & literary editor—William Stanley Braithwaite!!!!!!!!!!!! Think of it—chew upon it—let it sink into your astonished & outraged consciousness—the great Transcript dictator, the little czar of the Poetry Review, is a nigger—a low-born, mongrel, semi-ape!—Ye gods—I gasp—I can say no more! Aid me, ye benign elves & daemons of anticlimax! So this—this—is the fellow who hath held the destinies of nascent Miltons in his sooty hand; this is the sage who hath set the seal of his approval on vers libre & amylowellism—a miserable mulatto! To think of the years I have taken this nigger seriously, reading his critical dicta as though he were a Bostonian & a white man! I could kick myself! William’s picture is printed in the Bulletin beside the news item, & from the likeness given I can deduce no visible sign of his black blood. A heavy moustache droops down over what may be thick negroid lips. But after all—I suppose he has only a slight taint of the beast. No nigger blacker than a quadroon would be likely to attain the intellectual level he has undoubtedly reached. I am not minimising what the fellow knows, but I think it monstrous bad taste for the Transcript to foist a black upon its literary readers!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112

When August Derleth & Donald Wandrei were compiling the first volume of the Selected Letters, they left this one out. That being said, for all the bald racism in this paragraph, there is reason to think that at least some of Lovecraft’s outrage is hyperbole—the reference to vers libre (free verse, poetry that doesn’t follow conventional rules of rhyme or meter) and “amylowellism” (Amy Lowell was a noted proponent of free verse) reflects Lovecraft’s poetic prejudices rather than his racial prejudices.

The racism on Lovecraft’s part was frank, and frankly enduring. While there are few mentions of Braithwaite in Lovecraft’s correspondence, he felt the need to address him to others casually as “the nigger Bill Braithwaite” (Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37), “that eminent brunet critick William Stanley Braithwaite” (LFF 1.315), and “nigger Braithwaite” (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 220). It is no comfort to recall that such racist sentiment was shared by others—H. L. Mencken in a 1919 letter to George sterling refers to “The Braithwaite coon” (From Baltimore to Bohemia 55)—and the only “good” thing that can be said about Lovecraft is that he saved such epithets for his closest family and friends on the rare occasion Braithwaite came up in correspondence.

Then there’s the issue of the kitten…

I am glad also of the descriptive Braithwaite—leaflet—William Stanley is certainly at the head of American criticks of poetry, as indeed I realised before from the Transcript reviews. When a tiny coal-black kitten came to visit me in 1918 I called him “William Stanley Braithwaite” and used to let him chew even important papers and feather dusters with the natural destructiveness of a literary reviewer. But this William Stanley deserted me after 1919—he must have found my “poems” unpalatable. I wish I knew what became of him!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Winifred Virginia Jackson, 7 Oct 1921, LRKO 334

There is no reason to doubt that the kitten was real, and that Lovecraft named him “William Stanley Braithwaite.” Lovecraft mentions the cat in a letters to his aunt (LFF 1.37, 376). It is also a matter of record that Lovecraft had a habit of naming black cats after racial pejoratives for black people, beginning with his pet cat, who would later gain a kind of literary immortality in Lovecraft’s story “The Rats in the Walls” (written 1923, published Weird Tales March 1924). A line in a letter from Lovecraft to Edwin Baird reads “I can assure you that Nigger-Man is (or was, alas!) a glorious and purring reality!” (Selected Letters 1.298). However, the tendency is shown to use the similar epithets when referring to any black cat:

When I speak to little Sam I call him all sorts of things—”Little Black Devil”, “Old Nigger Man”, “Spawn of the Shadows”, “Little Piece of the Night”, “Old Black Panther”, “Little Onyx Sphinx”, “Child of Bast”, & so on, & so on ….. Not excluding the succinct & universal “kittie”!
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane W. Rimel, 10 Aug 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 200-201

Turning to the other end of the chromatic scheme—there are 4 little niggers at the boarding-house across the garden from old 66—brothers or half-brothers of the late & unforgettable Sam Perkins.
H. P. Lovecraft to Duane Rimel, 10 Mar 1935, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin &c. 260

Jason Colavito has pointed out in W. Scott Poole on Lovecraft’s Relationship to Poe and His Racist Cat that as terrible as this seems to contemporary readers, Lovecraft was far from alone in this kind of casual usage of the “N-word” and related terms, even with regard to the names of pets. The N-word was understood as pejorative, it was also in very common colloquial use. The only thing exceptional in this case is that Lovecraft naming a black cat “William Stanley Braithwaite” is making the N-word implicit instead of explicit.

There is also the issue of Lovecraft and Braithwaite’s common interest in Winifred Virginia Jackson. It’s not exactly clear when Braithwaite and Jackson became acquainted. In Winifred Virginia Jackson—Lovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by Wetzel & Everts asserted that Jackson was a romantic interest of both men, and that she actually pursued an affair with Braithwaite (who had married in 1903; he and his wife had seven children). While it is clear that Jackson was friends and partners with both men in some sense—she and Lovecraft shared editorial duties and leadership roles in amateur journalism from 1917-1921 or so, and she and Braithwaite were business partners from 1921-1927 at the B. J. Brimmer Company—there is no evidence for a sexual or romantic relationship with either of the two men, nor does Wetzel & Everts present anything except vague anecdotes to support the idea.

What Lovecraft and Braithwaite did share was an appreciation for Jackson as a poet, and both men wrote critical appraisals that lauded her poetry—Lovecraft in amateur journals, and Braithwaite in wider form through his anthologies. Lovecraft called attention to Braithwaite’s praise for her:

The United takes pride in the distinguished recognition just accorded its premier poetess, Winifred Virginia Jackson; recognition of a degree hitherto gained by no other amateur journalist. Four poems of Miss Jackson’s, “Fallen Fences”, “Miss Doane”, “The Farewell”, and “Cross-Currents”, have been selected by the eminent critic and editor, William Stanley Braithwaite, for publication in his 1921 “Anthology of Massachusetts Poets”, whilst another notable group has won the supreme distinction of inclusion in Mr. Braithwaite’s authoritative general “Anthology of Magazine Verse” for 1921, to be published in November. We may appreciate the honour thus reflected upon the United when we consider the exclusive standards and classical reputation of the Braithwaite anthologies, as published by Small, Maynard & Co. of Boston. These anthologies, says the New York Times, are “signs of the times and milestones upon the way”. According to the Atlantic Monthly, they “Show the vigorous state of American poetry”. Of Mr. Braithwaite the late William Dean Howells said: “Mr. Braithwaite is a critic very much to our mind, and is the most intelligent historian of contemporary poetry we can think of.” The United indeed has reason to congratulate its poeticla luminar, and indirectly itself, as the first and continued field of Miss Jackson’s efforts.
H. P. Lovecraft, “New Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 1 (Sep 1921)
in Collected Essays 1.299, cf. 303, 306, 307

Lovecraft had been intending to publish a new issue of his amateur journal The Conservative containing several poems by Jackson, but the issue was delayed and never eventually published, so that Braithwaite’s anthology ended up referring to a “ghost” issue (LMM 106). Yet by 1922 Lovecraft and Jackson had drifted apart, and Jackson and Braithwaite were focused on their new business, the B. J. Brimmer Company, which aside from publishing Braithwaite’s annuals also published material related to the Harlem Renaissance.

After 1922, references to Braithwaite are scarce in Lovecraft’s writing; usually only when someone noted that one or another of his poet friends had been mentioned in the annual Anthology of Magazine Verse, e.g.:

Your genius is far from unappreciated—indeed, Long tells me you are mentioned in the new Braithwaite anthology, (which I have not seen) an honour not by any means to be despised.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Jun 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 52

Smith had related this comment to his mentor George Sterling, who had previously expressed exasperation with and poor opinion of Braithwaite (Shadows of the Unattained 233, those interested should also compare From Baltimore to Bohemia 54-55 and especially “George Sterling’s Letters to William Stanley Braithwaite: the Poet Versus the Editor.” American Book Collector XXIV, Nov-Dec 1973). Which probably explains Smith’s rather lackluster response; Lovecraft in turn added:

As to Braithwaite—I guess he is as intelligent as the average anthologist, though all such characters have such streaks of poor judgment that their selections are occasionally rather unaccountable—both as to omission & inclusion.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Jul 1923, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 56

It is one of the oddities of Lovecraft that for all of his racial prejudice, and his early lambasting of Braithwaite for publishing free verse, he really did seem to respect Braithwaite both for his position in American letters, and as a literary editor and a critic. Which is what appears to have brought Lovecraft and Braithwaite into correspondence, however briefly.

All that remains is a single letter dated 7 February 1930, held at the John Hay Library. It is obviously a reply—whether Lovecraft had initially written to Braithwaite or vice versa is not known; nor is there any indication that the correspondence continued beyond this brief exchange. If Lovecraft initiated the correspondence, he would need only have written to the Boston Transcript, but if it was Braithwaite who started it, he would have needed to get Lovecraft’s address somewhere—from whom, we do not know. It begins formally: “Dear Mr. Braithwaite:—”

I am glad that you found merit in Mr. Long’s poem, & wish his work could be better known—for the encouragement of recognition would undoubtedly have the effect of stimulating him to more & more poignant utterance. There are provokingly few poets—just as there are provikingly few prose writers—who fully express that sense of the cosmic & the marvellous which is so potent a reality to many kinds of sensitive people. You would not find Weird Tales a very rich harvesting-ground for poetical material; although it does frequently contain excellent verses by Clark Ashton Smith, whom you have occasionally mentioned in the anthology. If Mr. Smith could only curb a frequent tendency toward extravagance, I think his work would be of even greater importance than it is. He is now entering the prose field to some extent—with exotic phantasies & tales.

The opening paragraph refers to Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Weird Tales; Long’s poem “The Horror on Dagoth Wold” had been published in the February 1930 issue of Weird Tales, which would have been on the newsstands in mid-January. Editor Farnsworth Wright had been in the habit of publishing weird verse, and perhaps that attracted Braithwaite’s attention for his annual Anthology of Magazine Verse—although as fate would have it, 1930 would be the last year the series would be published.

The second paragraph speaks to their mutual acquaintance:

It pleases me highly to learn of the continued progress of Miss Jackson, whose work gave such an instant impression of authentic genius a decade ago. I have seen & appreciated later verses of hers here & there, & am interested by the prospect of a novel from her pen. I shall be on the lookout both for this & for the short stories. It seemed certain to me from the first that her work had that sureness of insight & expression which marks genuine art, & the more authoritative confirmation of that judgment is very gratifying.

The in-between-the-lines on this paragraph is that Lovecraft has not been in continued contact with Winifred Virginia Jackson, which might be as expected from the lack of references to her in Lovecraft’s later letters; and, conversely, that Braithwaite has remained in contact with her, even after the bankruptcy of B. J. Brimmer Co. in 1927. When Lovecraft knew Jackson, prose was her weak spothence why Lovecraft did the revision on “The Crawling Chaos” and “The Green Meadow”; one has to wonder if she had intended to include these among the “short stories” mentioned. It is not clear if Jackson ever wrote a novel, although she did keep two scrapbooks full of news-clippings and notes for a projected novel.

Another early judgment of mine, which I hope later developments may confirm, relates not to an actual poet, but to a hierophant of poets—in other words, to a manual or text-book on the subject of poetic appreciation, which I think will be more effective than anything hitherto published in arousing ordinary minds to the beauty of poetry, explaining as much as can be explained of the poet’s appeal, & inculcating standards by which the genuine can be distinguished from the spurious. This book—”Doorways to Poetry”—is by Maurice Winter Moe, a teach of English in the West Division High School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; & a reading of it in manuscript has aroused my enthusiasm to almost inordinate bounds. It is so perfectly & incisively analytical, yet so appreciatively sympathetic & so free from pedagogical sterility. There is a chance of its acceptance by the Macmillan Co, & in the event of its publication I confidently expect qualified critics to sustain my own instant & unofficial verdict. There is no doubt but that you will receive a copy up its issuance.

The last paragraph concerns a project by Lovecraft’s friend Maurice W. Moe, Doorways to Poetry, which Lovecraft had assisted on but which never saw publication (Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 16-20). It is very typical of Lovecraft to promote the work and abilities of his friends, rather than his own. Then the letter ends:

Again expressing my appreciation—
yr oblg’d & obt servt
H. P. Lovecraft

The “again” is the only real hint that this is part of a longer correspondence; it suggests that Lovecraft had written to Braithwaite at least once previously. Perhaps he did; if so, or if Braithwaite ever answered we don’t know.

The tone of the letter is obviously formal, and equally obviously lacks any reference to Braithwaite’s race, or any trace of racism. That too is very typical of Lovecraft; whatever prejudices he held, he was usually at pains to avoid giving offense to any individual in print, especially in later life. A researcher who read this letter without any knowledge of Lovecraft’s previous literary encounters with Braithwaite would probably not find anything exceptional about this very brief, mundane exchange between a pulp writer and a noted journalist and editor.

It would be very interesting to know more of Braithwaite’s own end of things: none of his published letters that I have seen mention Lovecraft, or shed much light on this letter or his relationship with Winifred Virginia Jackson. It would have been interesting if they had hit on some common thread of interest—they were both admirers of the weird fiction of Algernon Blackwood, for example (The William Stanley Braithwaite Reader 301, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”)—but that is in the realm of might-have-been. Perhaps in the future, research into Braithwaite’s letters and papers might lend more insight into their relationship—or perhaps not. It was, after all, only one letter in a life that was filled with letters, for Braithwaite.

What is interesting about H. P. Lovecraft’s relationship with William Stanley Braithwaite is simply how, with all of his prejudices, he could and would deal with a literary African-American. In private, Lovecraft let his prejudices show to his closest family and friends, more circumspect in conversation with other correspondents; in public, including his amateur journalism editorials, he was neutral. In his correspondence with Braithwaite, Lovecraft is unfailing polite. This shift in register is familiar in Lovecraft’s writing; a reflection of the stratified society he found himself in, where Braithwaite was a second-class citizen by dint of his race, but which social decorum required Lovecraft to address with a formal politeness. While we can see something of this shift in registers with a few other correspondents, it is only with Braithwaite that we can really see the full range of this unspoken code—because William Stanley Braithwaite is his only known African-American correspondent.


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Winifred Virginia Jackson

I see that I need to don armour against a curious fate that concerns itself with bringing loss to me. The loss of Mr. Lovecraft’s letters also touches you.

May the California sunshine restore you to perfect health.

Very sincerely,
—Winifred Virginia Jackson to R. H. Barlow, 11 Nov 1938, MSS. John Hay Library

Winifred Virginia Jackson was born in 1876 (although dates vary), attended county and public schools, and then attended college at the Eastern State Normal School and the Curry School of Expression (now Curry College) in Boston, and was sometimes employed as a librarian. She married her husband Horace Jordan in 1915, so that when she joined amateur journalism shortly after she was known as Winifred Virginia Jordan.

We know that Winifred was recruited to the United Amateur Press Association in 1915 by Lovecraft’s friend and correspondent Anne Tillery Renshaw. Winifred must have written to Howard Phillips Lovecraft in late 1915 or early 1916, because her poem “Song of the North Wind” appears in Lovecraft’s own amateur journal The Conservative in the January 1916 issue. They continued to write to each other until at least 1921 or 1922, when references to her fade from Lovecraft’s correspondence. Yet for that 5-7 years of letter writing, all that remains are six letters from Howard to Winifred dated from 1920 to 1921, near the tail end of their relationship, and we must reconstruct what is left from Lovecraft’s other letters.

As a poet, she was successful in getting published in amateur journals and newspapers. At the United Amateur Press Association convention of 1917, Howard was elected President and Winifred was elected vice-president, so their correspondence for the next few years would have included much official business as well as any personal news. She also held various editorial positions, including the United Women’s Press Club of Massachusetts official organ The Bonnet, and published her own amateur journal Eurus. Some unsigned pieces in The Bonnet are believed to be from Lovecraft, so their letters must have included details about the journals she edited as well.

Around early 1918, Winifred was stricken with influenza—probably the “Spanish Flu” pandemic—and one of Lovecraft’s letters from the period suggests she required a nurse at home to care for her, and that she had to dictate her letters to Lovecraft through the nurse:

Mrs. Jordan’s recovery has not been as rapid as one might wish, but a copy of The London Daily Mail lately came from her, addressed in her own handwriting instead of her nurse’s, hence I assume she is much improved. In the last letter she dictated, she related an amusing recruiting incident.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 5 May 1918, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 110

This formed the nucleus of what would become Howard and Winifred’s first collaboration, “The Crawling Chaos” (1921). Around the same period (1918-1919), Howard’s mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft experienced a nervous collapse that in 1919 required her to be committed to Butler Hospital. Lovecraft’s admiration for Jordan as a poet was growing, and includes his appreciative editorial “Winifred Virginia Jordan: Associate Editor” (Silver Clarion 3, No. 1, April 1919).

Also in 1919, Howard shared a dream in a letter; Winifred replied with her own, complete with a map, and suggested he make a story out of it. This became in 1920-1921 their second collaboration, “The Green Meadow” (1927). Both of these collaborations used her pen-name “Elizabeth Berkeley”, which Howard himself used twice himself. Perhaps at this time their correspondence became a touch more intimate; in late 1920 he wrote On Receiving Ye Portraiture of Mrs. Berkeley, Ye Poetess, indicating that she had sent him a photo. At this time, Winifred’s marriage likewise disintegrated, ending in divorce. She retook her maiden name, and in Lovecraft’s letters “Mrs. Jordan” became thereafter “Miss Jackson.” Lovecraft wrote to her:

From your amended, or restored, signature, I assume that your court case hath come to a successful termination; a circumstance which will cause universal rejoicing because of the inevitable suspense & tension from which it doubtless relieves you.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 25 Dec 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 329

Rumors of a romantic relationship between Howard and Winifred derive Winifred Virginia JacksonLovecraft’s Lost Romance (1976) by George T. Wetzel & R. Alain Everts, a scarce chapbook which repeats a good deal of decades-old gossipsome of it provably wrong; despite assertions by Wetzel & Everts that Horace Jordan was African-American, his birth certificate and draft card both list him as white. So too, Lovecraft and Jackson were not always in perfect agreement: while Lovecraft was an ardent Anglophile and supported the British during World War I and the Irish War of Independence, Jackson supported Sinn Fein:

I first heard of the organisation from Mrs. Jordan, who is so devoted to the cause that she does secretarial work at the offices two or three days every week without remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 85

Despite these political differences, Howard mentions continuing to see Winifred at various amateur get-togethers, and he even published a critical appreciation: “Winifred Virginia Jackson: A ‘Different’ Poetess” (United Amateur, March 1921). Her appreciation for Lovecraft also appears to have been real; on one visit to her house he noted:

[…] I found my worthless poetical attempts predominating in her old scrap books which date back to a time when their inspection by me was probably never anticipated.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Sarah Susan Lovecraft, 17 Mar 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.33

Susie Lovecraft died 24 May 1921 at Butler Hospital, after complications from gallbladder surgery. Howard would write:

My dear Miss Jackson:
It may indeed be said with justice that you have lost a friend in my mother, for although you never heard directly from her, she may be reckoned among the earliest and most enthusiastic admirers of your work. As I recall her especial appreciation of your poems, from the very first she saw, I regret the more that you did not know her personally, either by letter or meeting.
—H. P. Lovecraft to W. V. Jackson, 7 June 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 330

That July, Howard and Winifred both attended the National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston—where Lovecraft met a new amateur from New York, Sonia Haft Greene. Everts reports that in a 1967 interview Sonia told him “I stole HPL away from Winifred Jackson.” Maybe it was so; references to Sonia increase in Howard’s letters at the same time that references to Winifred decrease—yet the correspondence between HPL and WVJ did not cease immediately. If there was a romantic rivalry, it’s not clear that Lovecraft was even aware of it…and there was another factor.

William Stanley Braithwaite was a prominent African-American poet and editor; Lovecraft was not immediately aware of his race (Braithwaite’s parents were both mixed race) until 1918, when Braithwaite was awarded the Springarn medal, this occasioned one of the most intemperate outbursts of racial prejudice in Lovecraft’s letters (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 112). In the Twentieth Anniversary Number (1921 annual of the Bibliophile Society in Boston), Braithwaite wrote an introduction “The Poetry of Winifred Virginia Jackson”—and the two would soon begin a much more substantial collaboration. In 1921 Braithwaite and Jackson would found the B. J. Brimmer publishing company, which published Braithwaite’s annual anthologies of magazine verse and several works associated with the Harlem Renaissance. The latter connection with African-American literature is no doubt why Winifred was mistakenly identified as black in Colored Girls and Boys’ Inspiring United States History: and a Heart to Heart Talk about White Folks (1921). Wetzel & Everts assert that Jackson and Braithwaite were having an extramarital affair, but there is no evidence for this.

Lovecraft by 1921 was certainly aware that there was some association between Jackson and Braithwaite; his last extent letter to Winifred mentions Braithwaite, whom Lovecraft also named a black kitten after (Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 334); and there are scattered other references in his letters, mostly to Braithwaite writing about Jackson’s poetry or mentioning The Conservative in connection to it (Letters to Family & Family Friends 37, Letters to Maurice W. Moe & Others 106). Whether Lovecraft was aware of them being business partners is unclear; the references to her in his correspondence drop off precipitously in 1921-1922. A single letter from Lovecraft to Braithwaite survives, dated 7 Feb 1930, where HPL is pleased to hear about WVJ, so they must have been out of touch by that date.

Which need not have been anything more elaborate than two friends drifting apart. Winifred Virginia Jackson was spending more time with her new business and less with amateur affairs; H. P. Lovecraft was spending more time with Sonia H. Greene, whom he would marry in 1924. For the lack of their surviving correspondence, Lovecraft gives a clue:

She has a fad for destruction, and wishes all her epistles burnt without exhibition, though they are in truth far less slanderous than the presumably preserved GALLOMO. I usually comply with the wish, though in this case had to save this one sheet for the sake of the story.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 109

What did her letters to Lovecraft mean, to Winifred? Certainly he supplied encouragement and enthusiasm for her poetry; they shared dreams and collaborated on two stories; and their period of correspondence was marked by major life events for both of them: disease, divorce, & death. They shared a close professional correspondence as the lead administrators of the United Amateur Press Association…and if there was anything more, we can only guess at it.

The six surviving letters consist of one draft among Lovecraft’s papers, and five letters that R. H. Barlow transcribed and submitted to August Derleth; only an excerpt from the first letter was published in Selected Letters I. Presumably, these were all of the letters that Winifred was able to unearth when Barlow contacted her c. 1938.

All six letters have been published in Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others.


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Zealia Brown Reed Bishop

Dear Mr. Lovecraft :—

Your letter of the 20th just arrived. I shall be only too glad to have your friend have The Mound for sale or to see—especially that since it offers an opportunity to partially discharge my already disgracefully lengthened debt to you— (You are so patient about money—especially when you need it so very much.)
—Zealia Brown Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

In 1927, Zealia Margaret Caroline Brown Reed turned 30 years old. She had been married at seventeen to James P. Reed (1891-1935); a son (James Reed, Jr.) was born seven months after the wedding. The state of her marriage in 1927 is unknown, but three years later she would be listed on the U.S. Census as “divorced.” Living at the time in Cleveland, Ohio, Zealia Brown Reed worked as a court reporter and sold stories and articles to support herself and her son, but was looking to improve her writing. Via Samuel Loveman, she got in touch with a friend of his that did revision work and dispensed writing advice: H. P. Lovecraft.

I wrote to Lovecraft and he replied immediately that he would be glad to examine any of my work I cared to send and offer what assistance he could.

Thereafter I became an established recipient of the famous Lovecraft letters. He wrote regularly, sometimes fifty and sixty page letters, in a fine spidery script which often counted five hundred words to the page. These letters were filled with the strictest rules of rhetoric and meaty literary advice.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 254

The correspondence of Zealia and Howard would last for the final decade of Lovecraft’s life. It would result in three weird tales: “The Curse of Yig” (written 1928, published 1929), “The Mound” (written 1929, published 1940), and “Medusa’s Coil” (written 1930, published 1939). Lovecraft also had a hand in revising a number of Zealia’s non-weird manuscripts, none of which are known to have been published or survive. As with some of his other revision clients, Lovecraft’s correspondence goes much beyond the simple “business” side of things. Writing apparently every week or two, his letters would be filled with advice on writing, suggested readings, remarks on articles or newspaper cuttings that Zealia had sent. One letter from Lovecraft to her son James survives, showing how friendly and familiar that the two had gotten, although Lovecraft never failed to address his letters as “Dear Mrs. Reed,” or “Dear Mrs. R”—at least until 1930, when Zealia remarried to Dauthard William Bishop, Sr. and the letters were sent to “Dear Mrs. Bishop.”

As is the case with many of Lovecraft’s correspondents, the bulk of the surviving correspondence are his letters to Zealia, which makes it difficult to get a read on the woman herself. What is apparent from Lovecraft’s responses to her is that she was not primarily interested in weird fiction, being more focused on stories of relationships, real life, and human interest—and apparently sold at least one story “One-Man Girl” the confession pulp Cupid’s Diary (26 Dec 1928). While Lovecraft was always polite to Zealia in his letters to her, to his other correspondents he would occasionally gripe:

And the light diversion wherewith I’m paying it off is the most deodamnate piece of unending Bushwork I’ve ever tackled since the apogee of the immortal Davidius himself—the sappy, half-baked Woman’s Home Companion stuff of a female denizen of once illustrious Cleveland whose pencil has hopelessly outdistanc’d her imagination. Gawd bless the money-orders, but Pete sink the manuscripts!
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 23 May 1927, Letters to James F. Morton 138

David Van Bush was a prolific early revision client of Lovecraft’s who specialized in mediocre poetry and pop-psychology essays; any revision work that that was especially tedious became “Bushwork.” While that might well be the case for some of Zealia’s more romantic fiction, it’s difficult to say that the same should apply to their weird fiction—Lovecraft himself noted that “The Curse of Yig”: “gave me quite an opportunity to practice up on my old creative processes” (Letters with Donald and Howard Wandrei and to Emil Petaja 206); and the extensive narrative of “The Mound” stands as one of Lovecraft’s longest stories, based on a very bare premise, so he could hardly have had no interest in it. There is a lacunae in the extent Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence around the time “Medusa’s Coil” was written, and because it was never published almost no references in Lovecraft’s other letters, so it is unclear what his feelings were toward that work.

Zealia herself, however, seemed overall very grateful for the long friendship in letters. When August Derleth contacted Bishop after Lovecraft’s death, looking for his letters and any unpublished stories, she noted:

You see when I first began writing I was prone to be too schoolgirlishly romanticHPL snapped me out of that & made me infinitely ashamed of myself. My sister has a ranch in Okla & while visiting her over a period of many years I have studied & learned much of Indian folklore. The Mound & Yig are both based on actual stories throughout the locality of my sister’s ranchMedusa’s Coil might also interest you?

I am sending you a few letters which cover minutely Howard’s principles of revision instructions–one is the first letter ever received from him in ’27 on this subject. Yes he helped me on nearly everything I’ve done in some mannerthe storiesYigThe MoundMedusa’s Coilwere my first real stories of their kindthe novelThe Adopted Sonwas carefully corrected by HPL & revised where he felt necessaryhe suggested the method of rhythmwhich I endeavored to carry out& which you will catch when you have time to read it.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

For all that the correspondence between Zealia and Howard seems to have run for about a decade, and is mentioned in her memoir “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”, surprisingly little of it survives. In part, this appears to be a factor in Zealia’s re-marriage and moves. When Derleth contacted her about the Lovecraft letters project, she apparently sent some of the letters in her possession. Eighteen of these became part of the Arkham House Transcripts; fourteen of them appear in Selected Letters II (1968). In her correspondence with Derleth, she hinted at other surviving letters:

My yet unfinished tale is one with Aztec mythology woven through it and I think Howard was well pleased with the progress I made without his supervision…even as he was with three of my novels. Sometimes I shall send you the letters he wrote about them…telling me how I had progressed with structure and the choice of words.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

These letters appear to have never made it to Derleth, but some of it did survive; in 2014, it came to light that 36 letters (including the letter from Lovecraft to her son Jim, and one surviving letter from Zealia to Lovecraft) had been in the possession of Zealia’s great niece. This, combined with the letters that Arkham House transcribed and biographical materials on Zealia’s life and her correspondence with Lovcraft, were annotated and published as The Spirit of Revision (2015) by the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

The correspondence is still very incomplete; the fifty-four published letters covers a period of 1927-1930, 1934, and 1936. In addition to this, there is one letter which Zealia quoted from in writing to August Derleth, which has not been published:

But I do want you to know that under H.P.L. I most certainly had the finest fundamental training one could ever receive in years at any university.

Thus as example: “I am genuinely astonished by Wright’s attitude toward your last story. It only confirms my opinion of his capriciousness and lack of all objective standards in judging stories. This tale was not so long as the one he accepted the week beforeand I don’t see where it could be any less “convincing”. But Wright’s Wrighthe will have his self-important ex-cathedra personal reactions. I give him up! In fact I gave him up long ago. It would take some superhuman and veteran behaviourist like Thomas H. Uzzell to fathom the intricacies of his psychology.”
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 6 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This would presumably be a reference to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright rejecting either “The Mound” or “The Curse of Yig.”

One aspect of Zealia’s letters to Lovecraft that has mostly gone unremarked are the dealings she had with the other authors in Lovecraft’s circle. Samuel Loveman has already been mentioned; the two do not appear to have any lengthy correspondence. At the time she began to engage Lovecraft’s revision services, he was in partnership with Frank Belknap Long. “Sonny” Long may have revised and/or typed some of her manuscripts, and acted as literary agent in trying to get “The Mound” published after it was rejected by Weird Tales. In addition to Long, Zealia got in touch with Robert H. Barlow, the avid fan who later became Lovecraft’s literary executor, in 1934.

Dear Mr Barlow:-

After so long a time I generally get around to accomplishing the thing I’m supposed to. Today I am expressing The Mound to you and am also enclosing a copy of Medusa’s Coil for you to read, then I wish you would please send it on to Mr Frank B. Long of New York (230 West 97th Street) as I’m going to give him a chance to dispose of it unless you would particularly like to have it. Anyway, you may advise me. I have no idea what the Londodn [sic] Publishers will offer. They have asked to see it and are the publishers who made a reprint of The Curse of Yig. […]

Mr Lovecraft must have had a marvelous time at your home and on his trip. Isn’t he a wonderful person? I feel deeply indebted to him for anything I have and may ever accomplish. His letters are always sources of great inspiration to me.

My fingers are getting buttery so shall stop, but wanted you to know that the manuscripts go forth today. Sorry I’ve been so negligent.
Zealia Bishop to R. H. Barlow, 11 Jul 1934, MSS. John Hay Library

Barlow collected manuscripts from pulp writers, and eventually had an eye toward publishing them in his amateur journals The Dragon-Fly and Leaves. Her correspondence with Barlow would be relatively brief, but Barlow would form an important link in the chain to eventually getting all of her weird revisions published in Weird Talesand eventually by Arkham Housealthough this involved a bit of miscommunication and misunderstanding:

Am glad you liked The Moundaltho’ I wonder if you saw Medusa’s Coil after HPL revised it? The partial copy I sent you was the original before his revision? I was shocked at young Barlow’s claim–for it was untruthful from the starkas I believe one of Lovecraft’s to me proved. HPL wrote me of a “young chap in Florida” who was interested in printing on “his own machine some weird stories” & asked me if I would let Barlow “use” my stories for his “private collection”or something like thatlater Barlow wrote me asking my permission & even asking me to let him use the pictures used by Wright in the Curse of Yig!I hope I’ve proved that the stories are mine? Barlow never found the stories in Lovecraft’s effects& has no claim on them. Every one of the three talesThe Curse of YigThe Mound & Medusa’s Coilis based on material acquired on my travels around my sister’s ranch in Oklatho Medusa’s Coil was written around another location. Tell Barlow for mehe’s a poor sport!

The revision prices on all stories were duly noted when HPL had finished, tho’ I owed him either 18.00 or 21.00 at the time of his death on some work done last yearWhatever Wright or anyone else will pay for either or both tales please arrange that half (regardless of the indebtedness) be paid to Mrs. Gamwellin appreciation for all HPL did for me.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 11 May 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

H. P. Lovecraft mentioned Zealia in several letters to his various other friends and correspondents, usually in relation to “The Curse of Yig” or to the other stories her revised for her, but it doesn’t appear that many of them attempted to actually get in touch with her. Besides Derleth, who contacted Zealia after Lovecraft’s death and seems to have remained in touch with her off-and-on for most of the rest of her life. The only other possible contact she had was with Lovecraft’s friend and fellow pulpster E. Hoffmann Price:

It was just before Bill’s and my brother’s tragic deaths, that H. Hoffman Price (maybe I have that first initial wrong) turned me over to his agent August Lenniger. At that point when he was advising me my heart and mind seemed suddenly to stand still. […]
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 24 Apr 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

August Lenniger was Price’s literary agent; it’s not entirely clear when they got in contact, if it was in the 1930s, there is no reference to any correspondence in Price’s letters with Lovecraft, nor in Price’s memoirs of other pulp writers.

As a writer, Zealia Brown Reed Bishop seems to have found little professional success in terms of sales—her “confession” pulp stories are long forgotten, her novels remained unpublished—except for those stories revised, to the point of being ghost-written, by H. P. Lovecraft. This work is not without distinction: The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House) is the first volume of Mythos fiction published under a woman’s name, and the weird fruit of Zealia’s correspondence with H. P. Lovecraft continues to be published and re-published. While many fans may find The Spirit of Revision principally of interest because of the light it sheds on Lovecraft’s revision practices, it should be noted that their correspondence covered much more ground than just that—and Zealia’s letters may yet prove more valuable as a record of their personal and professional relationship.

ZealiaBishopc1945

I could mention one thing more, however, which can hardly be considered of minor importance. Mrs. Bishop was a woman of great charm and quite exceptional beauty.
—Frank Belknap Long,
Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside xiv


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

“H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” (1953) by Zealia Bishop

Some of Lovecraft’s friends remonstrated with him and regretted that he spent so much time as a revisionist. There is no evidence, however, that Lovecraft chafed at this means of making an extremely meagre living. He was generous with his astounding sapience and derived a genuine sense of pleasure and satisfaction out of giving his wisdom and erudition to help others.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 253

As much as scholars of H. P. Lovecraft’s life and work rely on the rich trove of letters that he has left behind, they do not cover all of his life—and his many friends, family, acquaintances, and revision clients left their own record of his life, in letters and diaries and memoirs. The sources are valuable accounts, but as new information becomes available, they are also subject to new scrutiny, and what might have been considered rock-solid “facts” about Lovecraft in the 1950s and ’60s is sometimes subject to reinterpretation and change.

“H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was published in 1953 as part of The Curse of Yig (Arkham House). The author was Zealia Bishop, who from roughly 1927-1937 was one of Lovecraft’s correspondents and revision clients. From her synopses Lovecraft produced three weird tales (“The Curse of Yig,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and “The Mound”) and had a hand in several of her unpublished stories. This memoir was for many years was essentially the only information that most fans and scholars had on this part of Lovecraft’s life.

It was not until the Selected Letters II was published, containing fourteen abridged letters from the Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence and scattered references about Zealia Bishop by Lovecraft in letters to others that there was anything to verify or compare her account…and it would not be until 2015, when a trove of recently-found letters from the Lovecraft/Bishop correspondence was published as The Spirit of Revision (H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society) that a fuller picture of their professional and personal relationship could be established.

Even before The Spirit of Revision, however, scholars questioned parts of Bishop’s essay.  For example, her account of how she came into contact with Lovecraft:

It was in 1928 in a small bookstore in Cleveland that I first learned of Lovecraft. The bookstore was managed by Samuel Loveman, a bibliophile and writer of verse who had achieved some minor fame as friend of the poet, Hart Crane. […] Bookstore proprietors are always being asked by amateurs to recommend publishers, teachers and critics. I was no exception. At my inquiry, in the course of our conversation, Mr. Loveman told me about Lovecraft.

“Write to him,” he advised. “He can help you, if anyone can.”
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 253-254

The problem was, Samuel Loveman was not in Cleveland in 1928, but in New York City, where he had moved in 1924; the earliest letter from Lovecraft to Zealia is dated 10 May 1927 (SOR 29). While she might well have gotten in contact with Lovecraft via his friend Sam Loveman, it almost certainly could not have happened the way she said it did. Nor is this the only discrepancy that can be pointed out in Zealia’s memoir.

To understand some of the problems in “A Pupil’s View,” it might help to know how and when it was written. August Derleth wrote to Zealia Bishop shortly after Lovecraft’s death in 1937, asking for any letters she could contribute to what would become the Selected Letters and about the stories that R. H. Barlow had said Lovecraft had revised/ghostwritten for her. In one of her answering letters, Zealia promised:

I shall prepare an article or—data—on what I think may be of general interest in regard to Howard’s revision work—and send you within the next week—but shall await your reply and if I have anything which you can use I shall compile it for you—and do all in my power to assist you in every way.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 8 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

There is no evidence that Zealia actually produced an article in 1937, and the subject come up again in the Bishop/Derleth correspondence in 1950:

I hope you won’t find too many things wrong with the Lovecraft article. If that passes, then I shall not worry about the others, for he is not an altogether easy subject about whom one can write, yet a very interesting one. Thank you for sending me Cats etc. I shall send you a check for same…but you are always hitting me between the eyes, it seems, as being the only one who was really indebted to Lovecraft as a “client”, paying him for revision! Do you think that is all quite “cricket” as hard as I’ve worked for so many years? Remember, it was Loveman who first sent me to Lovecraft (when he was living in Cleveland) and I sometimes wonder if he remembers about it, however, it was Howard who had me take a course at Columbia University and also study privately with Thomas Uzzell—while I was in New York and it was then we found out I could gain much more by my own efforts with Howard guiding me along the way when I needed it…but I never should have followed the path of the weird tale despite all the material I gathered from the people in the south and in Mexico and Latin America. My yet unfinished tale is one with Aztec mythology woven through it and I think Howard was well pleased with the progress I made without his supervision…even as he was with three of my novels. Sometimes I shall send you the letters he wrote about them…telling me how I had progressed with structure and the choice of words.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Cut to two years later:

You’re wrong, fellow, I haven’t fallen down on the job about the articles on you and H. P. L. I finished them two years ago, but kept rewriting them, unable to throw off that damnable self-consciousness instilled in me by Lovecraft. Now, however, I’ve developed more positiveness and will send them to you for approval and corrections where you feel necessary.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 12 Aug 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Far from being the fresh recollections of a Lovecraft just recently passed in 1937, then, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was really written some 13-15 years after his death. A few allowances for memory might be made in such a span of time, but there are other key factors in the composition of “A Pupil’s View” to consider. The first of these is August Derleth’s quiet role in the production.

Would you prefer that I send on the Lovecraft and Derleth articles for you to groan over, and cut, augment and suggest in person?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Sep 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

At last here is the article. I hope that it does not fall far short of my opinion of you and that you will see some improvement in my writing. Feel free to augment and delete as you see fit. […] At the time I began the article on you I started one on Lovecraft this should be finished for your approval before I get there—you understand I will need photographs for both? […] In the event my short stories are published as a collection I plan to include both articles. Does that meet with your approval? If only the weird are selected for one book then both articles—DERLETH-LOVECRAFT—would be most appropos—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Oct 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

At this point, Zealia had committed to writing two profiles, one on Lovecraft (“A Pupil’s View”) and one on Derleth himself (“A Wisconsin Balzac”). Bishop’s letters to Derleth continue to talk about re-writing these articles into 1953, when Zealia Bishop signed a contract for Arkham House to publish The Curse of Yig. Whatever the final product that Zealia delivered after years of re-writing, she apparently did not think it adequate, and instructed Derleth:

Evidently you misunderstood me that day at lunch in Madison. I thought I was very explicit—as well as Helen—that I told you “everything was ready to go except I wanted to rewrite the DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. And that I would positively have to rewrite the LOVECRAFT article entirely.”

I have done what I could on it and am sending it as is, “but I am not in the slightest pleased with it and feel that I should be the one to rewrite it.”

The material is here and could be redone beautifully but it would take me at least another two weeks so I am sending it so that you may pass judgement edit it and then if you think I should rewrite it return or bring it.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 25 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

If necessary “brush up” the Eschutcheon [sic] as well as the Derleth & Lovecraft articles
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (1953?), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Looking at “A Pupil’s View” with an eye toward a possible Derlethian influence, several parts of the memoir jump out immediately. The first few glowing paragraphs of “A Pupil’s View” do not sound like Zealia Bishop; they discuss Lovecraft’s rise in prominence in American letters (which Zealia does not seem aware of), his devoted followers and fellow pulpsters (including several she never mentions in any other letter and probably never heard of, such as Robert E. Howard and Henry Kuttner); and references to overseas sales, the Arkham House collections of Lovecraft’s fiction, and “magazines containing his work command equally high premiums” which sound very much like the standard Derlethian sales line.

Later in the narrative, Zealia Bishop goes into a very atypical reference to the Cthulhu Mythos—in accordance with Derleth’s interpretation:

[…] our conversation naturally turned to Lovecraft and his fantastic story themes, especially those of the Cthulhu Mythos, which were based on a curious pantheon of Gods and Elder Beings with a marked basic similarity to the Christian Genesis story of the struggle between good and evil.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 261

It is conceivable that Bishop had absorbed this point of view from Derleth’s introductions in Arkham House books and his various Cthulhu Mythos stories. The conversation is supposed to have happened in June 1928, and “The Call of Cthulhu” had been published in the February 1928 Weird Tales, so the timing for talking about Cthulhu isn’t necessarily off—but the phrase “Cthulhu Mythos” wasn’t coined or popularized until some years later by Derleth. The last paragraphs too are very Derlethian in tone, especially:

But in this rather specialized field, undoubtedly Lovecraft’s own attitudes about sex and love (capably discussed in H.P.L.: A Memoir, by August Derleth) got in his way when he revised the work of his pupils. These were experiences not entirely within his ken.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 263

Without access to the original manuscript that Zealia Bishop submitted to August Derleth, it is speculative to guess at his how much or any of this was material he wrote. To play devil’s advocate: If Derleth did have a large hand in this piece, or at least did a proper editorial pass on the the manuscript, we might expect certain little details to have been quietly edited out that were left in. For example, Zealia’s rather hyperbolic claims about Lovecraft’s ability with languages:

He was well versed in the language of the Kaffirs, Damoras, Swahilhi and the Chulhu and Zani—who are extremely tenacious of their ancient religion. […]  He wrote as fluently in Greek and Latin as in English and when he began his strict instructions in Aztec Mythology he often wrote to me in Spanish.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 254, 255

While Lovecraft was proficient in Latin, and had some rudimentary knowledge of Greek and Spanish (the latter at least for the Spanish phrases in “The Mound”), he had no knowledge of African languages. It’s possible that Lovecraft had written something about these language (probably referencing from an encyclopedia article) in a letter which does not survive, but you’d think Derleth would have caught this error…but, we can only speculate. Taken together, a Derleth editing/partial re-write and aged memory might explain a few of the parts of the “A Pupil’s View” that don’t fit what we know of Lovecraft from other sources.

The second key factor to consider in “A Pupil’s View” is why Zealia wrote it, and her motives were not restricted to praising Lovecraft and preserving his memory. She wanted to make it absolutely clear who actually wrote the stories in The Curse of Yig:

There in Oklahoma, doubting more and more that I would ever become a writer, let alone a successful one, I sat one evening with a group of old Oklahoma settlers who had driven out to my sister’s ranch. We sat around the kitchen fire and talked. Finally the conversation rambled on to folklore. Grandma Compton, my sister’s mother-in-law, told a horror story about a couple who pioneered in Oklahoma not far from where we were. This story was a spark to me. I wrote a tale called “The Curse of Yig,” in which snakes figured, wove it around some of my Aztec knowledge instilled in me by Lovecraft, and sent it off to him. He was delighted wit this trend toward realism and horror, and fairly showed me with letters and instructions.

Now at least I really went to work. I rewrote the story and together we revised and injected erudition into it about the Aztec Snake God, Yig. Finally, under his careful direction, I had a decent and I felt salable weird-horror story.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 258

So on with “Medusa’s Coil” and “The Mound.” Zealia Bishop would not admit to Lovecraft’s authorship, or even of his editing. Even the name of her memoir “A Pupil’s View” shows how she wanted the relationship to be perceived: she was Lovecraft’s student, paying him for his writing advice, not a client paying him to ghost-write stories for her. So above and beyond all else, “A Pupil’s View” was written specifically to convince readers and critics that these were not Lovecraft revisions or collaborations—which is what Derleth and Arkham House had been selling the Bishop/Lovecraft stories as in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943) and Marginalia (1944).

Lovecraft told a different story in his letters, including to August Derleth and his friend and future literary executor R. H. Barlow. August Derleth had written to Zealia Bishop on Barlow’s advice, with the specific aim of publishing the Lovecraft collaborations. So Derleth was certainly well aware of what Zealia Bishop was doing, and why she was doing it. One late letter makes this perfectly clear:

Remember, August, in Howard’s new book—His Letters etc., please don’t let it appear that I was never able to do anything for myself. Is it your opinion that in these anthologies all credit goes to Howard? Was that your intention or what?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d., MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Selected Letters II was published in 1968, the same year that Zealia Bishop passed away.

Taking it as a given then what Zealia Bishop was trying to accomplish with “A Pupil’s View” was primarily to preserve her reputation as a writer—that writing in 1952-1953 should would be trying to recall events from about 25 years prior when she first began to correspond with Lovecraft—and that August Derleth appears to have had at a quiet hand in amending and editing the document—is there anything of value to be extracted from it? Can we trust anything that Zealia Bishop wrote?

Surprisingly, more than you think. While some of her claims are farcical (Lovecraft wasn’t an expert on Aztec mythology either), the correspondence in The Spirit of Revision actually supports Zealia Bishop’s general narrative of the relationship. In the absence of more of her letters to Lovecraft, which are long gone at this point, it is her only account of her side of the relationship, including her frustrations at their different tastes in writing. In addition to this, “A Pupil’s View” is the only first-person account of Zealia’s brief meeting with Lovecraft and Frank Belknap Long, Jr. in New York City on 29 May 1929.

The most difficult question remains Zealia’s account of the actual conception and background behind “The Curse of Yig,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and “The Mound.” Lovecraft’s letters make it pretty clear that he ended up writing most of “The Curse of Yig,” and basically all of “Medusa’s Coil” and “The Mound” from synopses provided by Bishop. So what, if anything, can we trust of her account?

In our conversation we discussed among things my short novel, “The Mound”—an outgrowth of another tale told by the Comptons from their recollections of two old Indians living near Binger, Oklahoma—and my stories, “The Curse of Yig” and “Medusa’s Coil,” which I had picked up as an idea from a Negress who did some housecleaning for me and expanded into a story similar in treatment to my earlier horror tale.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 259-260

The sources of inspiration given seem plausible. “Grandma Compton” appears as a character in both “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound,” and Zealia Brown Bishop’s sister was Grace Brown Compton—so there is no reason to doubt that Grace Compton’s mother-in-law was the original for “Grandma Compton.” The locale of “The Mound” is reasonably accurate to the mound-legends around Binger, Oklahoma. “Medusa’s Coil” is not tied to the Grandma Compton mythos, but an African-American housekeeper telling the story of a mixed-race woman “passing” as white is not far-fetched.

Serious cracks in the Zealia Bishop’s narrative don’t appear to have been seriously appeared until after her death. In “A Pupil’s View,” she alleges that at Lovecraft’s advice, Frank Belknap Long worked with her on “The Mound”:

In the ensuing conversation we took up the subject of “Medusa’s Coil.” It was decided that I should continue working on that under Lovecraft’s direction. “However,” he said, “I would like Belknap to work with you on your new story ‘The Mound.’ He may have something fresher and more interesting to offer.[“] […]

At Lovecraft’s gentle insistence, I left “The Mound” with Frank Belknap Long, and it was Long who advised and worked with me on that short novel. Lovecraft’s instructions were negligible; he merely advised both Belknap and myself when we felt we were not following his guidance.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 260

In his own memoir of Lovecraft, Frank Belknap Long refuted this:

I had nothing whatever to do with the writing of The Mound. That brooding, somber, and magnificently atmospheric story is Lovecraftian from the first page to the last.
—Frank Belknap Long, Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside (1975) xiii-xiv

The truth appears to have been somewhat more complicated, at least according to the surviving correspondent and typescripts. Lovecraft certainly appears to have written “The Mound” based on the Binger mound legends provided by Zealia Bishop; when it failed to sell, he advised her to let Belknap market it, and he had abridged the novella and tried to do so, but failed:

You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mount to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.) I wired him just not to send the unabridged copy to Mr. Barlow at once […]
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

As to the matter of the Bishop MSS.of course, it’s only fair to Mrs. Bin view of what she’s paid for ghosting or revisionto let her try the stuff on any possible markets. I assumed that Sonny Belknap, as her literary agent, had done so; & am astonished to find that any stone was left unturned.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Jun 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 143

R. H. Barlow was able to eventually cobble together a complete version of the manuscript, which he then bound with letters from Zealia Bishop and Frank Belknap Long relevant to its provenance.

In 1978, S. T. Joshi launched a more serious criticism at Bishop’s narrative in his essay “Who Wrote ‘The Mound?'” in Nyctalops #14. Joshi’s careful picking through the available evidence (Lovecraft’s published and unpublished letters, and manuscript material in the Lovecraft collection at John Hay Library at Brown University) reconstructed the convoluted textual history, and dismissed Bishop’s claims of authorship.

Others were coming more-or-less to the same conclusion and articles like “The Mound of Yig?” (1973, Etchings & Odysseys) by W. E. Baardson, “In Search of Yig” (1974, Nyctalops #9) by John J. Koblas, “‘Yig,’ ‘The Mound’ and American Indian Lore” (1983, Crypt of Cthulhu #11) by Michael DiGregorio all looked for the genuine lore underlying “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound,” taking Bishop’s basic claims of inspiration from regional folklore as true—and unfortunately spending a lot of time looking in the wrong places for a bit of lore that Lovecraft had invented.

Joshi would edit the corrected third printing to The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989, Arkham House), and in his “A Note on the Texts” referenced the abridgement, mistranscription, and editing of Bishop’s stories by Long and Derleth. The book also reprinted August Derleth’s 1970 introduction (“Lovecraft’s ‘Revisions'”), where the Arkham House founder quoted from “A Pupil’s View”:

The stories I sent to him always came back so revised from their basic idea that I felt I was a complete failure as a writer.
—Zealia Bishop, “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” in Ave Atque Vale 257

There is a certain pathos to this statement, because it is probably true. It is rather sad in many ways that we cannot take more of “A Pupil’s View” as the unvarnished truth. It would be easier to read and believe Zealia’s account of her struggles with the difference between where she wanted to go in her writing versus the direction that Lovecraft direction if it wasn’t necessary to put each statement under the critical microscope. Her affection for her “mentor” certainly seems genuine, even if she sometimes disagreed with him, and the occasional overblown claim about his linguistic abilities seems to be more a sign of admiration than a deliberate effort to mislead. Errors like Lovecraft’s age (she gives his age as 35 in 1928, he was actually 38) appear to be honest mistakes, the kind of thing Derleth should have caught.

“H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” was first published in The Curse of Yig (1953, Arkham House) and has been reprinted in Lovecraft Remembered (1998, Arkham House) and Ave Atque Vale (2018, Necronomicon Press).


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

The Curse of Yig (1953) by Zealia Bishop

After the death of H. P. Lovecraft in 1937, his friends August Derleth and Donald Wandrei (founders of Arkham House), and R. H. Barlow (Lovecraft’s literary executor) began a concerted effort to get his fiction, poetry, and letters into print. This process took decades, publication being relatively slow and expensive, and the audience being mostly restricted to hardcore fans. Among all the legendary Arkham House publications, Zealia Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (1953) stands out as the first Mythos collection attributed to a woman—and would remain the sole such book for some decades. The contents are fairly succinct:

Like many books, The Curse of Yig didn’t just happen. At the time of Lovecraft’s death, only “The Curse of Yig” (1929) was published; both “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil” had been rejected by Farnsworth Wright, editor of Weird Tales, and apparently failed to find a home elsewhere. One of the first jobs that Derleth & co. faced was finding out what revision-work and collaborations that Lovecraft had actually done and obtaining manuscripts and permission to publish them.

H. P. wrote stories for a half dozen, some of which I can prove by documents. Bloch (Don’t quote me—there are amenities to be preserved), Heald, Reed, Lumley, had outright jobs done, Rimel & others his enormous tinkering resulting in a wholly re-written ms. These things are—some of them worth collecting–but not in his own books. He said many times he would not permit a collaboration in his collected stories, so certainly he’d resent these things. We’re going to have a hamper full as it is.

Mrs. Reed had him do 3 stories,

  1928 – YIG – pub. – written outright for her
*1929 – THE MOUND – novelette – ditto
*      ”  – Medusa’s Coil – embodying a notion of hers, but all HPL nonetheless

* I have only the ms. of these

[…] Perhaps the works he ghosted could be called “collaborations” without scaring off the ghostees, & made another book. There’s years of work to be sorted & printed.
R. H. Barlow to August Derleth, 31 Mar n.d. [1937], MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth managed to get in contact with Zealia Bishop in 1937, and they discussed Lovecraft’s letters and revisions. In an early letter, Zealia promised:

I shall prepare an article or—data—on what I think may be of general interest in regard to Howard’s revision work—and send you within the next week—but shall await your reply and if I have anything which you can use I shall compile it for you—and do all in my power to assist you in every way.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 8 Apr 1937, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The article didn’t come. What did happen is that Derleth apparently edited these stories and then apparently acted as Bishop’s agent to sell them to Weird Tales. The timeline on how exactly this happened is a little unclear, but over a year later in the January 1939 issue of Weird TalesDerleth’s version of “Medusa’s Coil” was published. Fan response was positive, and ‘The Eyrie’ for March 1939 reveals it was voted the second-favorite story in the issue. The success of “Medusa’s Coil” might explain why Bishop’s “The Curse of Yig” was included as a “Classic Reprint” in the April 1939 issue of Weird Talesand it was also positively received in “The Eyrie.” “The Mound” did not see print until the November 1940 issue of Weird Tales, possibly due to its length. None of these stories were presented with any mention of Lovecraft’s authorship in Weird Tales.

Following Barlow’s suggestion, Arkham House initially focused on publishing H. P. Lovecraft’s fiction on its own: The Outsider and Others (1939) and Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943) collects nearly all of his fiction. The latter book, however, also included some of his “collaborations,” including “The Curse of Yig” and “The Mound”—this would have been the first time Lovecraft’s hand in Zealia Bishop’s stories was publicly acknowledged. “Medusa’s Coil” was republished in Marginalia (1944), alongside other revisions and collaborations; these Arkham House texts both used Derleth’s edited versions of “The Mound” and “Medusa’s Coil,” rather than the original Lovecraft/Bishop version.

Was it your intention to make them appear as his stories?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 28 Jan 1949, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Zealia Bishop’s letters with Derleth in the mid-to-late 1940s defend her authorship of the three weird stories, other evidence of Lovecraft writing them from synopses notwithstanding. She also continued to promise him an article on her relationship with Lovecraft:

I hope you won’t find too many things wrong with the Lovecraft article. If that passes, then I shall not worry about the others, for he is not an altogether easy subject about whom one can write, yet a very interesting one.
Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1950, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House was slowing down publication in the late 1940s and early 50s. Derleth had repeatedly cited low sales, with books selling out only very slowly despite the relatively small print runs. By the 1950s most of the weird fiction pulps had folded, and even the venerable Weird Tales was on its last few years of existence. So it is somewhat surprising that around 1952, Zealia’s letters start to discuss a print collection of her fiction…and she was also working on not just the long-promised article on Lovecraft, but another on Derleth himself:

You’re wrong, fellow, I haven’t fallen down on the job about the articles on you and H. P. L. I finished them two years ago, but kept rewriting them, unable to throw off that damnable self-consciousness instilled in me by Lovecraft. Now, however, I’ve developed more positiveness and will send them to you for approval and corrections where you feel necessary.

I plan to use both of them in the story collection but if, after reading them, you wish to suggest a market, it might be well to have them previously published.

After you read them and also see the assembled collection, how about writing a “Foreword”? You know I worked and studied hard before I began studying under Lovecraft and Long. Considering that it was during the darkest years of the depression, I paid them both well for their instructions, criticism and any revision. My record at Columbia University will bear out my years of studying and ambition. What shall I do about reprints of stories published in magazines now out of print? […]

What about the reprinting of stories once published in stories now out of business or publications discontinued by a publisher tho’ still in business? What of those published in Confessions?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 12 Aug 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Derleth’s reaction to this had to be a bit mixed. The time and place for Zealia’s memoir of Lovecraft would ideally have been earlier—in Marginalia maybe, or The Arkham Sampler (1948-1949)—and it didn’t seem that Zealia Bishop had anything genuinely weird to offer besides the three Lovecraft revisions, and those had already been published and re-published. “The Curse of Yig” in particular had been published twice in Weird Tales, three times in hardcover, and most recently in the paperback Avon’s Fantasy Reader No. 14 (1950).

At last here is the article. I hope that it does not fall far short of my opinion of you and that you will see some improvement in my writing. Feel free to augment and delete as you see fit. […] At the time I began the article on you I started one on Lovecraft this should be finished for your approval before I get there—you understand I will need photographs for both? […] In the event my short stories are published as a collection I plan to include both articles. Does that meet with your approval? If only the weird are selected for one book then both articles—DERLETH-LOVECRAFT—would be most appropos—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 15 Oct 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Will have some time to redo my DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. If they meet with your approval do you have a market for them or will you suggest one to me, though later they will go in the book with the weird short? Why don’t you quote me a price for publication (by ARKHAM HOUSE) for such a volume? I would like to have such a book done well, such as ARKHAM HOUSE does.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 18 Nov 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The discussion with Derleth now takes on a more business-like tone. The moment that Derleth might have been dreading arrived: Zealia had fixated on Derleth as a possible publisher for her collection. Vanity publishing was a skeleton in Arkham House’s closet: not a service that was widely advertised or ever publicly acknowledged, but a circumstance occasionally resorted to, at least with old Weird Tales authors that Derleth was familiar with and presumably whose material was not vastly divergent from Arkham House’s core focus. Given the relatively expensive costs of publishing, the high cost of the resulting books, the small print numbers, and the slow sales, it also wasn’t likely to be a strong financial investment—and that’s before you consider that most of the volume’s contents would be reprints. Derleth presumably expressed at least some of these risks to Zealia Bishop:

What you say about the publishing of the stories interests me. In the event we come to an agreement, how must this money be paid your company? You say you must get $2.50 for you to break even—then what of the author?

I would like to do this, followed by at least three other books, if you could pass on the work, but I would not want the weird tales published if you feel more credit should go to LOVECRAFT. After all, August, he was the teacher and I  the pupil and he was polishing my efforts, trying to direct me, but he did not do any more than you and Frank Long did. While erratic and always in need of money, Frank was an excellent and driving tutor even though we could not always see “eye-to-eye”. I was always pulling between the two teachers trying to write as I wished, not as they were determined I should, but I gained much from both of them as well as from your own kind interest and advice. Yet I would not want to publish the stories as my own efforts if you do not feel I am justified in claiming them. So be perfectly frank and we shall proceed from there.

Am re submitting the articles with the one on H. P. L. Maybe this time you will like the Derleth one better.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I would like very much to work out a plan with you for the publishing of not only the one volume but possibly several more. I feel after your editing, they will all be good and should have reasonable sales. […] My reason for asking how the money is to be paid is that under the circumstances, I cannot draw from a personal fund. I have talked to our banker who has told me “if the contract warrants it” I may borrow the sum.

It is now up to you about the contract. […] I will have the weird tales and articles to you immediately after Christmas. What you choose and assemble will be, of course, entirely up to you.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 22 Dec 1952, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

It isn’t clear what Zealia means by “editing” here—that is, whether she means the usual services of copy-editing by removing typos and grammatical errors and checking for factual accuracy, or editing that was more along the lines of wholesale revision, as Lovecraft would have done. Possibly she didn’t know herself. At the very least, he seemed to have convinced her that the volume should consist solely of the three weird tales revised by Lovecraft, plus her articles (if she ever finished them). The issue of cost and “breaking even” is another key issue: assuming that Zealia Bishop was paying for the printing, who was getting what percentage of the cover cost? Without the actual contracts or the Arkham House business records it is difficult to assess, but we get further hints as their correspondence addresses more details of the project.

First, though, Zealia had to finish her articles on Lovecraft and Derleth.

In three days I wrote exactly four words on the revision of the DERLETH article. Howarver [sic], after your letter I set up all night finishing it as well as the ESCHUTECHEON [sic]—so go over them both with a “curry comb”—streamline them where necessary-especially with newspaper publication in mind for DERLETH—and elaborate upon the “HOUSE OF GHOSTS” as I have no details on that other than behind it is: that ARKHAM HOUSE was founded on the memory of LOVECRAFT and his fictious [sic] name of ARKHAM – Incorporate that as you see fit.

I do not think, however, that for the book the real meaty stuff should be deleted.

But revise both article and story as necessary and have both retyped and send me a statement. Do please send the ESCHUTCHEON to your editor friend if it passes your approval. I will work on the LOVECRAFT article tonight and tomorrow night and it will follow as quickly as typed to be handled the same as the DERLETH one. If you find these two articles and the three Weird stories adequate for publication in book form, then let’s get down to figures, publicity plan etc;.

You know I told you I would have to know how muchwhen the bills had to be met and so on. After all, I have to plan ahead for any unusual expense or it would not pass D. W.’s approval—certainly not for writing. He loathes publicity and does not encourage my writing—maybe I should use my little granddaughter’s name—LESLIE S. REED—and become an individual-new-unknown-etc.-and after the successful publication of several things bring out a good personality story—?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

This was a little over a week after August Derleth’s marriage; one can imagine that it had begun to dawn on him that for the monies to get the book published, she apparently wanted him to put her articles into printable shape as well as every other task involved with assembling a manuscript. D. W. Bishop was Zealia’s husband, and at that time was essentially an invalid, although he apparently still largely controlled the couple’s finances. The idea of using a pseudonym was probably vetoed by Derleth: one of Zealia’s most bankable assets was likely name recognition from Weird Tales fans from over a decade prior.

Evidently you misunderstood me that day at lunch in Madison. I thought I was very explicit—as well as Helen—that I told you “everything was ready to go except I wanted to rewrite the DERLETH and LOVECRAFT articles. And that I would positively have to rewrite the LOVECRAFT article entirely.”

I have done what I could on it and am sending it as is, “but I am not in the slightest pleased with it and feel that I should be the one to rewrite it.”

The material is here and could be redone beautifully but it would take me at least another two weeks so I am sending it so that you may pass judgement edit it and then if you think I should rewrite it return or bring it.

I will do the foreword as quickly as possible.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 25 Apr 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The Lovecraft article is finished—but you’ll have to have it retypedHelen cannot type fast enough & my secretary has had a baby, has to stay home—etc—etc—so—take it as is—but it must be slicked up & retyped.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (after Apr 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Ultimately The Curse of Yig was published without a foreword, so presumably it was either cut or never finished.

In the correspondence, there are suggestions that Derleth may have been trying to agent the Lovecraft and Derleth essays to magazines or fanzines before the book was published. If this was the case, no record of a prior publication has been found. It’s reasonable to assume that the original manuscripts for the two profiles “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View” and “A Wisconsin Balzac: A Profile of August Derleth” required more than a little copy-editing, and possibly wholesale re-writing, including lengthy bibliographical lists in Derleth’s profile, which elicited a comment:

Approve manuscript-with exceptions: some typographical errors and suggest Derleth profile be cut to eliminate so much commercialism and cataloging which should be in a separate pamphlet. Suggest I proof read—What about contract? We should settle on that before printer begins work—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 29 Jun 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The contracts arrived—but you do not mention in your letter that the DERLETH & LOVECRAFT articles are included in THE CURSE OF YIG. Without them the publications would be of little, if any, value to me. I merely mentioned that I thought the article about you included too much listing of your works and killed the interest about the writer and man. […] Your prices do not correspond with those in the printers’ letter. I shall send a check to the artist. Also, watch for proofs from photographers.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 19 Jul 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Before desktop publishing, print costs would be a bit vague: the printer’s letter would have included the quote for costs for an approximate number of books at so many pages; the addition of photographs, large changes in the text, etc. could require substantial rework in terms of layout and raise the cost of the final product. Which is apparently about what happened with The Curse of Yig.

I am going to ask that you proofread this manuscript—particularly the Lovecraft. It needs some smoothing—it seems a little jerky—Maybe you will not think so—. […] I’m much too anxious about publicity, August—that can come with my new name—But I do wish the picture of Derleth & Lovecraft included in the Curse of Yig.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, 16 Sep 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

You should add that I have done journalism or writing for several newspapers including an historical series around Clay County Missouri—That I am a member of the National Federation of Press Women & the Missouri Womens Press Club. These women hold pretty well together & would feel slighted if mention were not mad on the blurb.

It would be better if the book dd not come out too soon or at least that the printers bill does not come before Dec if you can so arrange it.

Our Dispersion sale is Oct 21—Final settlement & especially in the case of a dispersal, if normally takes from 60 to 90 days—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (Sep 1953?)

The “dispersion sale” refers to the selling off of the livestock of Highland View Farms, which the Bishops owned; presumably with D. W. Bishop incapacitated they were no longer able to manage the rigorous cattle business. The blurb on the inside rear flap of her book jacket does include all of the points she wished included in the above letter.

Zblurb

We have not yet had the bill from Banta, but it will be coming along in a week or ten days, and it will be due thirty days from its date. I will send you a copy of it promptly, but I will not notify you how much you will have to pay until some time later, since we will want to wait at least until November 10th to give payments and orders time to come in. We have had 27 advance orders to date, and of course we have about 100 standing orders with the shops, though their payments will very probably not come through at once, and you will have to be remitted to you after you have met the bill.  Our shipment indicates that somewhere between 1200 and 1220 copies of THE CURSE OF YIG were printed; the book itself is very handsome, I feel.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 20 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

I enclose a copy of the bill from the printing company for THE CURSE OF YIG. This is due November 15. You will note its details, please, and then return it to me in the envelope enclosed for that purpose. You will see that 1217 copies of the book came to $1,698.23, or a cost over all of approximately $1.40 per book. The deduction of $14.45 is listed as “150 copies of last section” which I had printed for lecture platform use, and it is thus my personal expense, and is included here only because it is part of the “job” of printing for Banta.

Now, then, as of today, the book has actually brought is, with the per copy deduction for our handling charge already taken off, a total of $127.40, which, deducted from $1698.25, would leave you—as of today, that is—the sum of $1,5580.73 to send to me. However, this sum will be further reduced by still further orders to come in and to be paid for. $127.50 represents only 50 copies of the book at $3 the copy, less .45$ handling charge […] We have, however, sold 157 copies of the book thus far, and there are thus manifestly more payments due to us. I do not know how many of those payments will come in before the bill must be paid, but it seems certain that the total amount you will have to pay will be not less than $1,400.00, judging by previous experience with payments to us.

A study of the bill will show you some interesting things. For instance, the inclusion of the two photographs, which you wanted inserted, added a total of $55.78 to the cost of production. Alterations in text and jacket, at $5.50 an hour, added a further total of $73.60. These were potentially avoidable expenses, of course; to offset them I could arrange only for an $11.58 deduction as indicated in the final credit entry. On the other hand, the 200 extra copies I added to the print order, cost only another hundred dollars, which, it seems to me, is well worth the additional expense, since we have just 200 copies more with which to come into the black from the red on this title. We should come out all right; happily, we are discovering that patrons who do already have your stories in our earlier collections are still ordering this title because they want a complete Arkham House collection. […] Do now please arrange to send the required sum as soon as I let you know; figure on paying at least $1,400.00 […]
John Stanton to Zealia Bishop, 27 Oct 1953, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Arkham House contracted with George Banta Publishing Company of Wisconsin for the physical publication of the books; John Stanton was an Arkham House employee that handled some of the business matters. Copies of the “lecture platform” edition of “A Wisconsin Balzac” appear to be extremely rare ephemera.

s-l1600

As the bill comes due, the question of reimbursement and profits comes up again. The stock price of the book was $3, and the “handling fee” was $0.45/book, so the gross value of each book was $2.55. At 1217 books, that left a potential gross of $3103.35—but how much of that would Zealia be getting? How many copies would have to sell for her to recoup the cost of printing? There’s no doubt that Derleth had to be getting at least a portion of the cover price to keep the lights on at Arkham House. Nevertheless, the terms must have been acceptable enough, because Zealia footed the printer’s bill.

Herewith is check on account for 300.00—leaving a balance of 1100.00 which you shall have not later than November 14th. I may be in Madison on that day or before—but you may depend on the check on that day in any eventuality. This has been a little difficult to handle as you told me that the bill would come in on Nov 10th & be payable in thirty days—If this is the fact let me know as it would be easier for me & I would not have to borrow any money—as I will have checks coming in to cover the amount early in Dec—Write me about this at once. It means a great deal to me—as previously explained. […]

I’m not interested in publicity–merely that sales pay the amount used to publish it—
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. late Oct 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Herewith is the 1100.00 balance on the printing bill etc.—in three checks. I would like, if possible, for you to deposit them a few days intervals. The money is on deposit—but we have a devil of a banker—who is just as apt as not to call me out of a sound sleep & say “why are this….”  knowing that D. W. would know nothing of the deal & that I would be called upon to explain. Things will not always be like this—at present, however, to antagonize anyone could be disastrous. Since you can be assured that the money is in the bank I know you will arrange to handle the amount with your usual diplomacy.

It is impossible to say now how “Yig” is going or will go over. I’m receiving “fan” mail, of course—but that’s all happened before— […]

D. W. took one fleeting glance at the book. He did not so much as touch  it & has never mentioned it. That has cut me deeply—the girls, too, are wounded over his attitude—but it has only made me more determined to continue on—to do something more as often as I can—I cannot be destroyed—so many & so much depend upon me & my well being. […]

I hope “Yig” is successful enough to offset the printer’s bill & that we may publish one or two more under this plan then perhaps the other things will sell outright.
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d. (c. Nov 1953), MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

If Zealia Bishop hoped that the book would sell quickly, she had either deluded herself or else Derleth hadn’t been entirely forthright about the economics of the situation. As it was, it was not many months later when he was forced to write the kind of letter a writer hates to get.

I’m afraid you haven’t read your contract with Arkham House. There is no money due you by February 10th, I am sorry to say. The very earliest that any payment would be earned, would be in June, and I am not sure that there will be a payment then. The contract specifies that royalty reports on earnings shall be made after every half year, and that payments shall be made thereon not later than June and December respectively, following. Thus your first royalty reportwhich I shall try to have made up and enclose for youcarries you up to 1 January 1954, and covers the sale of only 250 books. And we have sold just 20 books since then, for a total of 270 books so far.

You will recall, too, that the total bill was $1,712.68, of which $14.45 was my personal responsibility—see my letter of 27 October 1953—leaving the actual cost of THE CURSE OF YIG—not counting other expenses incurred here which I did not put on the bill—at $1,698.23. Of this sum, you were asked to pay only $1,400.00, in the hope that the remaining figure would be earned by the time the bill was met. It was not quite earned; so you do not begin to receive monies until some months after (the first June to December) our royalty reports show that your book has earned the full $298.23. That is to say, form the first report of earnings, we must deduct no less than $298.23 plus a .45¢ per title handling charge, as per contract. If my estimate, purely off the cuff, is correct, the payment to you in June will be approximately $150.00, $20 more or less. My rough estimate puts it at just short of $150.00, but if I can have Alice make up the royalty statement in time to enclose it in this letter, than you will know for certain just what is due you in June; following which, the next payment will be made to you in December of this year, and on the same basis, at the same intervals, thereafter.

I am sorry that THE CURSE OF YIG has not sold faster; we are now just under 25% of the edition sold, and I know we will sell all the books, but they are just not moving fast, and none of our titles do so move. It took us 10 years to sell 1200 copies of THE OUTSIDER & OTHERS; yet, on the other hand, we sold 4,000 copies of SLAN in short of 4 years. But you will recall that I told you in advance not to expect any miracle sales, but a slow, steady accretion of sales. An initial payment of $150 or slightly less does represent 10% of your investment, and that is not too bad for two months’ sales, considering. […] We published Seabury Quinn’s ROADS in a 2000 copy edition in 1948 under a similar arrangement; it took him 4 years to recoup his $900 investment, and he is still earning his royalties now. We published David Keller’s TALES FROM UNDERWOOD in 1951 under a similar arrangement; he invested $1725, and still has $1450 to be earned for him.
—August Derleth to Zealia Bishop, 22 Jan 1954, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

25% would equate to about ~300 books sold in only two months (or a bit longer, counting advance sales); that should have grossed $900, or $765 minus the handling charges. If Zealia still owed ~$300 on the printing and might still expect $150 in June, that suggests her share or 300 books sold amounted to $450 net, so she was getting something like $1.50 per book (and remember that the printing cost was $1.40 per book). That leaves a full dollar of the cover cost unaccounted for, so either Derleth’s math is fuzzy, or (hopefully) there is a large piece of the accounting picture missing, because at $1.50 a copy Zealia would have to sell almost the entire run to earn out her initial investment ($1,698.23 / $1.50 per book = 1133 books), much less expect to see a profit.

We can compare these estimates with the one extant earnings statement:

Screenshot 2020-12-20 at 6.52.30 PM

$627.75 / 384 books = $1.63 per book, which isn’t far off from the estimate (presumably Derleth is rounding somewhere), but the basic picture is the same: to actually earn back her money, much less make a profit, The Curse of Yig would need to sell most of the edition. Just to break even, Arkham House would need to sell ($1,070.48 / $1.63 per book = 657 books), and there were only 833 left in the edition—and some of those might probably be author’s copies, archival copies, etc. At the current rate (384 books/year) the book wouldn’t be expected to show a real profit until 1956.

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. Instead of sales remaining steady, they appear to have decreased:

Our Bishop book, done in October 1953, has sold only 450 copies so far; and our Metcalfe, done in April 54, only 400. The one was largely reprint material, true, but the other was new work, though by a British author.
—August Derleth to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 May 1955, Eccentric, Impracticable Devils 451

Several of Zealia’s later letters to Derleth, tracking her economic decline, include requests for checks ahead of the agreed-upon schedule, no matter how small. In at least some cases, Derleth appears to have done his best to comply…but any hopes of actual profit, much less further publication, probably vanished quickly.

Certainly there seems to be an even interest in Yig—What do you think about a paperback for it—& in Airports etc?
—Zealia Bishop to August Derleth, n.d., MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

The reason it’s called vanity publishing is because it is vain.

At the end of the day, The Curse of Yig would seem to largely be a book for Arkham House collectors more than general fantasy or horror readers. One contemporary review probably said it best:

Zealia B. Bishop’s The Curse of Yig (Arkham House, $3) contains three negligible stories from Weird Tales, plus two first-rate biographical profiles: one plausibly presenting H. P. Lovecraft in a somewhat less favorable light than that in which he is shown by his idolaters, and one which comes close to doing justice to the fabulous career of August Derleth.
—”Recommended Reading” in Fantasy and Science Fiction, vol. 6, no.2 (Feb 1954) 95

Much of the enduring legacy of The Curse of Yig lies not with the stories themselves—these were the Derleth-edited texts, later superseded by corrected texts compiled and edited by S. T. Joshi in The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989, Arkham House). “A Wisconsin Balzac” has never been reprinted, and may well have been written entirely by Derleth himself.

What has been reprinted, and is perhaps the most remembered inclusion to The Curse of Yig is “H. P. Lovecraft: A Pupil’s View”—Zealia’s long-simmering, often re-written memoir of being Lovecraft’s student-cum-revision client. While not without its flaws, this was until the publication of their letters the only account of Lovecraft and Zealia Bishop’s professional and personal relationship available.

Which in its own way is what The Curse of Yig is: a testament to the lasting impact of these two human beings on one another, and through their fiction on the world. No other woman would be so associated with Lovecraft for decades afterwards; no other woman would have her own Mythos anthology until after the death of August Derleth in 1971. The Curse of Yig might have been a commercial failure, but those books still exist, and are purchased and read today. While every writer might hope for profit during their own lifetime, what more could a writer hope for, after they’re dead and gone, but to be read and remembered?


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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Jonquil Leiber

But first I must explain that my husband, Fritz Leiber, Jr, son of the Shakespearian actor, (who often played in Providence in time past) met Lovecraft through myself and formed a delightful friendship. We were the recipients of many letters now in the hands of the Wisconsin people, Eerleth [sic] et al. Many of the things you touched on in your article, we knew a little more in detail due to this correspondence – about his brief marriage for instance. And since I wa [sic] more interested in Lovecraft as a man or human than I was as a writer, (I lean to the Montague Rhode James, plus the weird man known as Summers type of mystery having been brought up in a draft old English castle – I’m an Englishwoman) so that I learned a number of things about him that his more well bred correspondents did. The man literally starved to death.
—Jonquil Leiber to William Townley Scott, 18 May 1944, MSS. John Hay Library

Jonquil Ellen Stephens married Fritz Reuter Leiber, Jr. on 18 January 1936. Fritz was working as an actor and pursuing a career as a writer; he had met and dated Jonquil at the University of Chicago in 1933-1934. They shared a love of supernatural fiction and poetry, and she encouraged her husband’s interests. On the 14th of October 1936, Jonquil wrote to Lovecraft.

Then in the late summer my wife, with a bold directness I had been unable to conceive for myself, wrote a letter to Lovecraft care of Weird Tales. A few days later the great man replied with what we thought was a long letter, until we had received some of his average-sized communications. That was the beginning of an orgy of letter-writing which lasted the few short months until his death. My wife wrote more letters herself and shortly we were joined by my friend and fellow enthusiast for the fantastic, Harry O. Fischer, then of Lousiville, Kentucky. Our letters were returned to us by Mrs. Gamwell afterwards. The entire correspondence was excerpted by Derleth for the volume of letters and later borrowed and retained, permanently as yet, by another individual who shall remain nameless here.
—Fritz Leiber, Jr. “My Correspondence with Lovecraft,” Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 375

Of the nine published letters from H. P. Lovecraft to Fritz & Jonquil Leiber, based off the Arkham House Transcripts created by August Derleth & co., four are addressed to “My dear Mrs. Leiber.” The originals letters, as far as I am aware, have not surfaced in the interim.

It is difficult to feel out who Jonquil was through these letters. As she told Scott, they show an interest in Lovecraft as a human being more than in his fiction; where Fritz and Lovecraft soon got deep into literary criticism and history, which would cause Fritz Leiber to revise his first Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser novella Adept’s Gambit, to her he answered questions on his life, who Lovecraft was and how he lived. Yet this was a real correspondence, a two-way channel of communication, and Lovecraft found out about her even as she was finding out about him.

It is interesting to know that you have a touch of piracy in your ancestry! I have a counterfeiter as a great-great-grand-uncle about whom I’ll tell you some time.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Jonquil Leiber, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 317

The best picture of her probably came from her husband, writing decades later after thirty-three years of marriage which only ended with her death due to a combination of alcohol and barbiturates. He remembered her as she was when they married:

She was small (four foot ten; best weight, ninety pounds), had bright blue eyes that were at times violet; she was fast (at Cyfartha Castle school in Wales she’d been a great scorer in field hockey; her method: get the ball and dodge your way to the enemy goal, no teamwork needed—you can always dodge big girls) and a good apache dancer; she had natural grace and artistry (early on she’d done illuminated manuscripts just as had the hero of Machen’s The Hill of Dreams); in America she posed for silk stocking advertisements; she was a great party planner and giver, a gifted fortuneteller, enthusiastic, and friendly, but capable of sudden vast dignified reserves, again just like a kitten.
—Fritz Leiber, Jr., “Not Much Disorder and Not So Early Sex: An Autobiographic Essay”
in The Ghost Light 334

Fritz talks about how cold winter was that January and February in Chicago, and how he read to Jonquil “At the Mountains of Madness” by H. P. Lovecraft from the pages of Astounding Stories (the first part appeared in the February 1936 issue, which might have been on the stands the month before). Their correspondence itself is almost lost in his account of their life together. It was, after all, only about four months—though it would influence Fritz for the rest of his life, help inform his work and make connections with the circle of Lovecraft’s correspondents, and he would return the favor with literary analyses and appreciations such as “The Works of H. P. Lovecraft: Suggestions for a Critical Appraisal” (1944), “A Literary Copernicus” (1949), “Through Hyperspace with Brown Jenkin” (1963), and “To Arkham and the Stars” (1966).

Throughout his life, Fritz Leiber, Jr. never forgot his debt to Lovecraft—or to Jonquil.

Because without Jonquil, none of it would have happened. Perhaps Fritz would have found his voice eventually; sold his stories and made his name. Fafhrd & the Grey Mouser may yet have helped inspire Dungeons & Dragons and played their part in the sword & sorcery boom of the 1960s and 70s; Fritz may even have written his homages to Lovecraft without that personal connection and communication. Yet because she had the courage to write to Lovecraft, a torch was passed from one generation of weird writers to another—and the effects of her letters to Lovecraft are still being felt today. They can still be read today, thanks to her: his final hopes to get a job, his painful economic necessities to scrimp on food. Not always pleasant reading, but the kind of insight which Lovecraft did not always share with every correspondent.

Lovecraft’s letters to Jonquil & Fritz Leiber were published in part in volume five of the Selected Letters (Arkham House, 1976), published more fully in Fritz Leiber and H.P. Lovecraft: Writers of the Dark (2005, Wildside Press), and reprinted in Letters to C. L. Moore and Others (2017, Hippocampus Press).

To A Dead Lover

Your limbs lie quietly beneath the grey dust and mould
And I am done with you and all you were of old
The blind worms creep about that once lovely head
I held against my heart…once, when your blood ran red.

Long years ago I loved you, but now I smile
Having other men a long, long while
I have forgotten you, I say, and all you were….

….But why do I hear your slow step on the stair…
And wait, eyes closed, to feel your arms about me?
—Jonquil Stephens, Sonnets to Jonquil and All (1978) vii


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

Her Letters to Lovecraft: Unnamed Salem Witch Descendant

The old gentry, representing the two or three armigerous families which came from Salem in 1692, have kept somewhat above the general level of decay; though many branches are sunk into the sordid populace so deeply that only their names remain as a key to the origin they disgrace. Some of the Whateleys and Bishops still send their eldest sons to Harvard and Miskatonic, though those sons seldom return to the mouldering gambrel roofs under which they and their ancestors were born.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror” Weird Tales April 1929

Among the Salem witches in 1692, ‘this Rampant Hag, Martha Carrier, was the person, of whom the Confessions of the Witches, and of her own Children among the rest, agreed, That the Devil had promised her, she should be Queen of Hell.
—Margaret Murray, The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) 47

Since 1924 when he first read Margaret Murray’s book on witches, H. P. Lovecraft had believed in the reality of the witch-cult, and that it had an American coven in Salem which had precipitated the famous witch-trials. So too, Lovecraft began to connect his stories with a fictional Salem diaspora, which included Joseph Curwen (“The Case of Charles Dexter Ward”), the ancestors of Randolph Carter (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”), Richard Upton Pickman (“Pickman’s Model”) and the unnamed narrator of “The Festival.” Lovecraft even hinted at the events in his “History of the Necronomicon.” Yet when Lovecraft wrote “The Dunwich Horror” and “them witch Whateleys” little did he know that he was about to have an encounter with a real-life descendant of Salem.

By the way—that tale has just earned me a highly interesting letter from a curious old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She hints at strange gifts & traditions handed down in her family, & asks me if I have access to any ancient secret witch-lore of New England. Also, she wants to know if Dunwich & Arkham are real places! I shall answer the letter, & see if I can get the good old soul to relate some of the whispered witch-traditions! A story of Salem horror based on actual “inside dope” from a witch-blooded crone would surely be a striking novelty!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 22 Mar 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 171

Mary Towne Eastey (or Este, Easty, & other variations) was 58 when she was hanged for witchcraft. Her case is less famous than some of the other victims; Arthur Miller barely names her in The Crucible (1952). Two of her sisters were accused as well, with Rebecca Nurse hanged a few months earlier, but Sarah Cloyce was released the following year. Among the victims of the Salem Witch Trials, Mary Eastey was remembered as one of the most pious and eloquent, and in the end begged the court not for her own life, but for the lives of her fellow accused.

Before she died, Mary Eastey had eleven children, and many grandchildren—and in the 237 years between her death and the letter that H. P. Lovecraft received from “a curious old lady in Boston,” there is room for hundreds of potential descendants. Lovecraft never identifies his correspondent by name, nor does he appear to have kept any of her letters, so this particular correspondent has never been identified, and may never be, so brief was their relationship—so as with many of his lesser-known correspondents, we have to piece together what we can not from the letters themselves, but from Lovecraft’s references in his letters to others.

By the way—the publication of “The Dunwich Horror” has just earned me a curious & interesting letter from an old lady in Boston, a direct lineal descendant of the Salem witch Mary Easty, who was hanged on Gallows Hill Aug. 19, 1692. She claims to have heard some strange traditions handed down in the family, & to possess certain powers of peering into the future which she cannot explain. A quaint old soul, apparently—I shall write & see if any of her “inside” witch traditions have fictional value. She wants to know whether Dunwich & Arkham are real places, since they don’t appear on ordinary maps of Massachusetts!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, c. 22 Mar 1929, Essential Solitude 1.189

It is likely that like many fans she wrote at first by way of Weird Tales, and that the editor Farnsworth Wright had forwarded the letter to Lovecraft, much as he would do with Robert E. Howard’s letter to Lovecraft the next year. Weird Tales had never shied away from tales of the Salem Witch Trials; Seabury Quinn had covered the trials in his series of nonfiction articles titled Servants of Satan, beginning with “The Salem Horror” (WT Mar 1925). Quinn, like Lovecraft in “The Dunwich Horror,” mentions tourists—Salem in the 1920s was beginning to appreciate its reputation as “witch country,” though not quite to the extant that it one day would.

While Quinn paints the victims of the Salem witch hysteria as innocent here, in his fiction he was more than happy to hint at real witches caught and burned by the trials. Lovecraft was far from alone in imagining a Salem witch diaspora, which caught on in the public imagination with films like I Married A Witch (1942) and eventually the television show Bewitched (1964-1972) and characters like Sabrina Spellman (Archie’s Mad House #22, Oct 1962). But at the time, these “real” witches of Salem were often depicted less positively, such as in Robert Bloch’s short story “Satan’s Servants” (written c. 1935) which Lovecraft had a slight hand in.

Yes—I may call on that venerable & genial witch-descendant before long. She is certainly the epitome of thoughtfulness & generosity—no sooner had I chanced to mention casually my long desire to read “The Wind in the Rosebush”, than the good soul sent it along as an unsolicited loan—she having owned it these 25 years, ever since it was published!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 1 Apr 1929, Essential Solitude 1.190

While we don’t know for certain what Lovecraft’s letter contained, his first letter would not doubt disabused her that any of his artificial mythology—including Arkham and Dunwich—were real, as this is what he always did whenever anyone asked him about the reality of of the Necronomicon, Cthulhu, et al. It is curious that Lovecraft would mention such a scarce volume as Mary Eleanor Wilkins Freeman’s The Wind in the Rose-Bush and Other Stories of the Supernatural (1903), but given that the unnamed correspondent was a reader of Weird Tales, it suggests she had some tastes in weird fiction, and Lovecraft had recently published his “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927), which mentioned Freeman’s book, so perhaps that formed a point of discussion.

Yes—that letter from a witch-descendant was rather unusual, & I am still hoping for dark data when she gets ready to unfold some real family history. It appears that her forbears were well acquainted with the Marblehead witches Edward Dimond & his daughter Moll Pitcher, (whose home, “The Old Brig”, still stands on Burying Hill) & that she herself, through the Easty or Este line, is a scion of the D’Estes of Ferrara, Italy, & a descendant of no less a malign character than Lucrezia Borgia! Some ancestry! The wildest progenitors on my own family charts seem pretty tame besides this array of glittering sinistrality.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Apr 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 172

Marblehead, Massachusetts, neighboring Salem, was a model for Lovecraft’s Kingsport just as Salem (or Salem Village, modern day Danvers) was the basis for “witch-haunted Arkham.” Edward Dimond was known as “the Wizard of Marblehead” or “Wizard Dimond”; his granddaughter Moll Pitcher gained some fame as a fortune-teller in nearby Lynn, and was the subject of a poem by famed poet John Greenleaf Whittier.

I’ve heard more from the Boston witch-descendant, who likewise turns out to be a lineal scion (through the Massachusetts Eastys, who were originally D’Estes of Ferrara, Italy) of Lucrezia Borgia & Pope Alexander the Sixth! Likewise, her forbears were intimately acquainted with Old Diamond & Moll Pitcher of Marblehead, about whom I told you some time ago. She has not yet related any specific dark tales transmitted down her family line, but still promises to do so.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 15 Apr 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 56

The connection with the House of Este of Ferrara appears fanciful—many amateurs in genealogy make assumptions based on common names. If that is fancy, or an error, it may be that the entire witch-genealogy of this unknown correspondent was so. Certainly, it doesn’t appear that the “dark lore” was apparently ever passed to Lovecraft, or at least he makes no mention of further correspondence with her after 1929, nor are there any specific mentions of his visiting her in Boston at any point. There is one likely reference to her in a letter from Zealia Bishop to Lovecraft:

The Boston witch-lady & the Maine wizard prove rather interesting—the latter in a somewhat amusing way.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 4 May 1929, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge & Anne Tillery Renshaw 61

“The Maine Wizard” was a male occultist who corresponded with Lovecraft at roughly the same time and for roughly the same purpose: asking after the genuine lore behind the Necronomicon and all that. As with the “Boston witch-lady,” Lovecraft never gives his name, though the very few descriptions suggest he was not William Lumley, another occultist of Lovecraft’s acquaintance.

Both of these correspondents have in common that they wrote to Lovecraft, probably via Weird Tales, as essentially “serious fan letters”—and we might imagine their thrill at receiving a response from the author, even as we imagine their disappointment when Lovecraft revealed that it was all made up after all. In both cases it is possible that the correspondence continued for a time, turning to other subjects. While we never learn her name, we do learn her ultimate fate:

An old lady in Bostom whom I knew—& who died just a year ago—was a direct descendant of Mary Easty, one of the Salem witches hanged in 1692—& therefore a collateral descendant of the more famous Rebecca Nurse (Mrs. Easty’s sister), whose ancient house (built 1636) in Danvers, Mass. [near Salem—formerly called Salem-Village] is still in existence & open as a public museum (I saw it in 1923).
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 19 Mar 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 116

You perhaps did not remember that I sent The Mound to Sonny Belknap over two years ago—in fact immediately after the old Boston lady—I’m grieved to learn of her death—returned it.)
—Zealia Bishop to H. P. Lovecraft, 26 May 1934, The Spirit of Revision 177

One thing we can be relatively sure of is that Lovecraft did not have her copy of The Wind in the Rose-Bush in later years, because he did not have a copy when Samuel Loveman gifted one to him in 1935. Lovecraft tended to be punctual in such things, and his last published recollection of his one-time correspondent shows it is no longer in his possession:

It’s an achievement nowadays even to read “The Wind in the Rosebush”, for scarcely any library has a copy. I never saw it till a year & a half ago, when a nice old lady in Boston lent a copy to Munn & me.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 14 Apr 1932, Essential Solitude 2.472

H. Warner Munn was a fellow weird taler from Athol, Massachusetts who had famously written “The Werewolf of Ponkert” (WT Jul 1925) following a suggestion from Lovecraft; the Rhode Islander also noted Munn’s extensive weird library. Curiously, when Loveman gifted Lovecraft with a copy of the rare book, he noted:

Loveman brought me a copy of “The Wind in the Rosebush” which he had promised me so long. Now you, Munn, & I are all equipped!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 5 Sep 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 291

Where did Munn get his copy? Did he have a bit of luck and buy one in the book store or—perhaps—was he one of those bastards that borrow a book and never give it back? That would certainly be another reason for the old witch lady to cut ties…but, we don’t know; perhaps she sold or gifted the copy to Munn.

Even after his death, Lovecraft’s friends remembered her through his letters:

Another, a woman claiming descent from infamous New England witches and also from Lucretia Borgia, offered HPL some inside dope on the witch cult and its practices.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth,13 Apr 1937, Eccentric, Impractical Devils 256

That is all there is on Lovecraft’s correspondence with the unnamed descendant of Mary Towne Eastey, that innocent old woman killed in the witch-hysteria that gripped Salem Village in 1692. Seabury Quinn in “The End of the Horror” called the whole episode absurd and a tragedy, and so it was. Yet reading these lines over, I am given to wonder if in their brief correspondence Lovecraft did not touch on Mary Eastey’s sister Rebecca Nurse—and maybe he recalled a very singular experience he had in a trip to Danvers some years prior, before he read The Witch-Cult in Western Europe:

I now put the aera of Colonial refinement behind me, and hark’d back farther still to an age of darker and weirder appeal—the age of the dreaded witchcraft. Leaving Danvers, I struck out along the roads and across the fields toward the lone farmhouse built by Townsend Bishop in 1636, and in 1692 inhabited by the worthy and inoffensive old widow Rebekah Nurse, who was seventy years of age and wished no one harm. Accused by the superstitious West Indian slave woman Tituba (who belong’d to the Reverend Samuel Parris and who caused the entire wave of delusion) of bewitching children, and denounced blindly by some of the hysterical children in question, Goodwife Nurse was arrested and brought to trial. Thirty-nine persons sign’d a paper attesting to her blameless conduct, and a jury render’d a verdict of “not guilty”; but popular clamour led the judges to reverse the verdict (as was then possible), and on 19 July 1692 the poor grandam was hang’d on Gallows Hill in Salem for a mythological crime. Her remains were brought back from Salem and interred in the family burying-grounda ghoulish place shadowed by huge pines and at some distance from the house. In 1885 a monument was erected to her memory, bearing an inscription by the poet Whittier.

As I approach’d the spot to which I had been directed, after passing through the hamlet of Tapleyville, the afternoon sun was very low. Soon the houses thinn’d out; so that on my right were only the hilly fields of stubble, and occasional crooked trees clawing at the sky. Beyond a low crest a thick group of spectral boughs bespoke some kind of grove or orchardand in the midst of this group I suddenly descry’d the rising outline of a massive and ancient chimney. Presently, as I advanced, I saw the top of a grey, drear, sloping roof- sinister in its distant setting of bleak hillside and leafless grove, and unmistakable belonging to the haunted edifice I sought. Another turna gradual ascentand I beheld in full view the sprawling, tree-shadowed house which had for nearly three hundred years brooded over those hills and held such secrets as men may only guess. Like all old farmhouses of the region, the Nurse cottage faces the warm south and slopes low toward the north. It front on an ancient garden, where in their season gay blossoms flaunt themselves against the grim, nail-studded door and the vertical sundial above it. That sundial was long concealed by the overlaid clapboards of Gothic generations, but came to light when the house was restored to original form by the memorial society which owns it. Everything about the place is ancienteven to the tiny-paned lattice windows which open outward on hinges. The atmosphere of witchcraft days broods heavily upon that low hilltop.

My rap at the ancient door brought the caretaker’s wife, an elderly unimaginative person with no appreciation of the dark glamour of the ancient scene. This family live in a lean-to west of the main structurean addition probably 100 years less ancient than the parent edifice. I was the first visitor of the 1923 season, and took pride in signing my name at the top of the register. Entering, I found myself in a low, dark passage whose massive beams almost touched my head; and passing on, I travers’d the two immense rooms on the round floorsombre, barren, panell’d apartments with colossal fireplaces in the vast central chimney, and with occasional pieces of the plain, heavy furniture and primitive farm and domestick utensils of the ancient yeomanry. In these wide, low-pitch’d rooms a spectral menace broodsfor to my imagination the 17th century is as full of macabre mystery, repression and ghoulish adumbrations as the 18th century is full of taste, gayety, grace and beauty. This was a typical Puritan abode; where amdist the bare, ugly necessities of life, and without learning, beauty, culture, freedom or ornament, terrible stern-fac’d folk in conical hats or poke-bonnets dwelt 250 and more years agoclose to the soil and all its hideous whisperings; warp’d in mentality by isolation and unnatural thoughts, and shivering in fear of the Devil on autumn nights when the wind howl’d through the twisted orchard trees or rustled the hideous corpse-nourish’d pines in the graveyard at the foot of the hill. There is eldritch fascinationhorrible buried evilin these archaic farmhouses. After seeing them, and smelling the odour of centuries in their walls, one hesitates to read certain passages in Cotton Mather’s strange old “Magnalia (which you, little Belknap, shall see when you come to visit your old grandpa) after dark. After exploring the ground floor I crept up the black crooked stairs and examin’d the bleak chambers above. The furniture was as ugly as that below, and included a small trundle-bed in which infant Puritans (even as you, children) were lull’d to sleep with meaningless prayers and morbid hints of daemons riding the night-wind outside the small-paned lattice-windows. Poor little creatures! […]

I saw old Rebekah’s favourite chair, where she used to sit and spin before the Salem magistrates dragged her to the gallows. And the sunset wind whistled in the colossal chimney, and ghouls rattled ghastly skeletons from unseen attic rafters overhead. Tho’ it was not suppos’d to be open to the public, I persuaded the caretaker to let me ascend to that hideous garret of century’d secrets. Thick dust cover’d everything, and unnatural shapes loom’d on every hand as the evening twilight oozed though the little blear’d panes of the ancient windows. I saw something hanging from the wormy ridge-polesomething that swayed as if in unison with the vesper breeze outside, tho’ that breeze had no access to this funereal and forgotten placeshadows … shadows … shadows… And I descended from that accursed garret of palaeogean arcana, and left that portentous abode of antiquity; left it and went down the hill to the graveyard under the shocking pines, where twilight shew’d sinister slabs and rusty bits of fallen iron fence, and where something squatted in shadow on a monumentsomething that made me climb the hill again, hurry shudderingly past the venerable house and descend the opposite slope to Tapleyville as night came.
H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long and Alfred Galpin, 1 May 1923, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 247-249

What might she have made of that, if Lovecraft cared to retell that particular tale? Perhaps it would have thrilled her…or perhaps she would have taken more comfort in the lines of Whittier that adorn Rebecca Nurse’s monument:

O, Christian martyr! who for truth could die,
When all about thee owned the hideous lie!
The world, redeemed from superstition’s sway,
Is breathing freer for thy sake today.


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

“Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” (1920) by H. P. Lovecraft

Ethel: Cashier in a Broad Street BuffetCindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper
Beautiful and calm and proud,
Only Ethel’s soul seems bowed;
Throngs may pass her, kind or curt,
They can neither heal nor hurt;
There she sits with manner strange,
Taking checks and making change!

Eyes are dark, but something fled
Leaves them heavy as the dead;
Brow is white, but something there
Lingers like an old despair;
Lips are sweet, but coldly curled—
Oh, so weary of the world!

Ethel’s always dressed in black;
Parting thus may leave its track.
Ethel’s always wan and pale;
Pining is not known to fail.
Though a life or love you rue,
Ethel, how I pity you!

—Randolph St. John
Black of face and white of tooth,
Cindy’s soul has lost its youth.
Strangely heedless of the crowd,
O’er her mop forever bow’d:
Eyes may roll and lips may grin,
But there’s something dead within!

Brow serene—resign’d to Fate—
Some three hundred pounds in weight—
Cindy wields a cynic’s broom,
Thinking not of hope or doom.
For the world she cares no more—
She has seen it all before!

Cindy’s always dressed in red,
With a kerchief round her head.
What may blight the damsel so?
Watermelon, work, or woe?
Tho’ her days may placid be,
Glad I am, that I’m not she!

—L. Theobald, Jun.
The Tryout no. 6, June 1920

We are spoiled for lore with regard to Lovecraft; because he left such a paper trail, because conscientious individuals like R. H. Barlow, August Derleth, and Donald Wandrei worked to preserve his letters, and then Arkham House, Necronomicon Press, Hippocampus Press, et al. to see them published, we know more about Lovecraft and his thoughts on things than almost any other pulp writer. However, he didn’t make a habit of leaving a trace for every bit of verse he left scattered in every amateur journal.

“Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” by H. P. Lovecraft (writing under his pseudonym Lewis Theobald, Jun.) appeared as above, opposite “Ethel: Cashier in a Broad Street Buffet” by his friend Rheinhart Kleiner (writing as Randolph St. John) in the same issue of the amateur journal The Tryout. The two poems are obviously a set, with the exact same number of lines, common meter and subject. Beyond that, there is nothing more known about the background of the poems except what is contained in the text; no letter survives regarding their genesis, publication, or reception in Lovecraft’s Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner or any other volume of Lovecraft’s published letters.

The setting is presumably in Providence, R.I. (which has both a Broad St. and State St.); although Kleiner being a New Yorker, there’s the possibility they were writing from their respective locations. Kleiner wrote a handful of brief memoirs of Lovecraft without mentioning these poems, but in “A Memoir of Lovecraft” (1948) he wrote what might conceivably be their genesis, a trip to Providence that Kleiner took in 1917 with the express purpose of visiting Lovecraft:

On our way back to his home, and while we were still downtown, I suggested stopping in at a cafeteria for a cup of coffee. He agreed, but took milk himself, and watched me dispose of coffee and cake, or possibly pie, with some curiosity. It occurred to me later that this visit to a public eating-house—a most unpretentious one—might have been a distinct departure from his own usual habits.
Lovecraft Remembered 196

Yet without any more specific reference to go on, we are in speculative territory. We don’t know if this was part of a contest, a jest, or an old shame for the both of them.

It can be clearly seen that this is a lighter bit of verse. Both Lovecraft and Kleiner are being melodramatic about their subjects to the point of parody. The poets were still relatively young (Lovecraft was 30 in 1920, Kleiner was 28) white men who took as their subject two apparently older working women, and finding something dreary and dead in their countenance. Kleiner appears authentic (“I pity thee!”), while Lovecraft is obviously having a bit more fun, which given his subject and the way her frames it, makes a rather forgettable bit of verse come off nastier to readers today. This wasn’t untypical of Lovecraft’s satirical verse, and Kleiner would write in “A Note on Howard P. Lovecraft’s Verse” (1919):

As a satirist along familiar lines, particularly those laid down by Butler, Swift, and Pope, he is most himself—paradoxical thought it seems. In reading his satires one cannot help but feel the zest with which the author has composed them. They are admirable for the way in which they reveal the depth and intensity of Mr. Lovecraft’s convictions, while the wit, irony, sarcasm, and humour to be found in them serve as an indication of his powers as a conversationalist. The almost relentless ferocity of his satires is constantly relieved by an attendant broad humour which has the merit of causing the readers to chuckle more than once in the perusal of some attack levelled against the particular person or policy which may have incurred Mr. Lovecraft’s displeasure.
Lovecraft Remembered 402

The only thing that makes “Cindy” really stand out among the mass of Lovecraft’s poetry is that it is his only poem that takes as it subject a black woman. It isn’t clear that this is a specific individual or a kind of archetype; “Cindy” in this sense has to be taken as short for “Cinderella,” a shorthand pseudonym for any cleaning woman. The traits that Lovecraft assigns to her: dark-skinned, white teeth, overweight, dressed in red, with a kerchief around her head suggests the “mammy” archetype, which was popular in the United States from the 19th century and on through the 20th century in advertising (Aunt Jemima being one prominent example), and as a stock character in fiction and film (Hattie McDaniel’s characters in Gone with the Wind (1939) and Song of the South (1946) as examples).

Lovecraft’s poem appears to be a response to Kleiner’s; the meter, length, and the shared details (Ethel as being dressed entirely in one color, both women are world-weary, etc.) definitely suggest this relationship. Give the quasi-seriousness of Kleiner’s effort, I suspect Lovecraft wrote his poem as a jocular rejoinder, satirically poking fun at his friend’s effort to pity and commiserate with someone he shared so little in common with. That is speculative, but it would certainly have been apt if Kleiner wrote his poem of the “wan and pale” Ethel, dressed in black, and Lovecraft countered with the exact racial opposite—a black Cindy, dressed in red.

The nastiness of Lovecraft’s poem stems largely from his reliance on stereotype. His major negative inference on Cindy’s appearance is her obesity (“Some three hundred pounds in weight”), and this is in keeping with Lovecraft’s general attitude, as he disliked fat—to the point that when he himself began to push 200 pounds during his marriage in the mid-1920s (the result of his wife’s cooking and eating out), he took to a strenuous “diet” that saw him shed the “excess” weight—and established the poor eating habits which would stick with him all of his life. This is compounded when Lovecraft ascribes one of the potential “blights” on Cindy’s life as “watermelon”—he’s basically using both a racial stereotype (that African-Americans love watermelon) to suggest that Cindy’s weight is a result of gluttony, rather than, say, a poor diet and chronic lack of sleep caused by working long hours for low pay.

The watermelon stereotype was extremely common during the period—at least one of the many postcards Lovecraft sent that survive might serve as an example of how ubiquitous it was, and how innocuous and “self-evident” it might have seemed at the time to Lovecraft. Lovecraft also liked watermelon, hence the annotation at the bottom of the card.

watermelon

The major question with this poem might well be: how racist is it? That it is racist isn’t arguable; Lovecraft clearly uses the racial stereotypes of the 1900s in its depiction of an African-American woman. Beyond those images though—it’s hard to say if this rises about the racist background count of the 1920s. It is certainly not a specifically positive view of a working-class African-American woman; and it is probably damning with faint praise to say that it doesn’t call for violence, use a racial pejorative, or ascribe any negative attribute or predilection to Cindy based on race beyond a hypothetical fondness for watermelon. In that sense, Lovecraft was contributing to the overall stereotypes regarding black people, but the best that can be said is he doesn’t appear to have been particularly malicious in their use. The most honest aspect of the poem is undoubtedly the last line, where Lovecraft writes: “Glad I am, that I’m not she!”

Readers might also ask how misogynist these poems are. We don’t get a lot of context for the poems except that these are two working-class women, black and white, employed in relatively menial positions, and we can assume that they have to work for a living and have done for some indeterminate but long period of time. The depictions aren’t entirely negative, but both also assume that whatever spark of joy life had for these women is gone, and that is what makes them pitiable, or at least sympathetic. However, the perspective is very much through the eyes of the someone else—the women don’t get to talk about their experiences in their own voice, we get no peek into their inner life.

The poems, basically, tell us more about the poets than their supposed subjects.

“Cindy: Scrub-Lady in a State Street Skyscraper” has been published in a number of collections of Lovecraft’s poetry; Kleiner’s “Ethel: Cashier in a Broad Street Buffet” is a bit more scarce, being rarely republished since its initial appearance in The Tryout. Both are in the public domain, and both have been reprinted in the appendices to Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner.


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