Her Letters To Lovecraft: Sonia H. Greene

I first met him at the Boston Convention when the amateur journalists gathered there for this conclave, in 1921. I admired his personality but frankly, at first, not his person.

As he was always trying to find recruits for amateur journalism he offered to send me some amateur literature not only form his own pen but also from the pens of others whose effort he felt was worthy of my perusal; works that appeared in the different amateur journals.

From then on we kept up quite a steady correspondence, and I felt highly flattered when he told me in some of his letters that mine indicated a freshness not born of immaturity, but rather a refreshingness because of originality and the courage of my convictions when I disagreed.

And I disagreed often, not just to be disagreeable, but because I wanted, if possible, to eradicate or partly remove some of his intensely fixed ideas.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 132

Sonia Haft Shafirkin was born to a Jewish family in 1883, in or near Ichnya, in the present-day Ukraine; then the Russian Empire. By the time Sonia was 7 years old, her father had left or deserted the family, and her mother obtained a divorce and emigrated westward. Sonia spent two years in the United Kingdom at school; her mother traveled on to the United States of America, remarried, and sent for her daughter. The homelife was not entirely happy, and her step-father soon put his new stepdaughter to work; Sonia was apprenticed to a milliner at age 13. At age 16, she married a 25-year-old Russian immigrant, Samuel Greene (ne Seckendorff). Her first child, a son, was born the next year and died in infancy. A daughter, Florence Carol Greene, was born in 1903.

The marriage did not last; Samuel Greene died in 1916. Sonia Haft Greene lived in New York continued to climb the ranks of the millinery trade, attended night schools and evening courses, raised her daughter, and helped to care for her mother (now separated from her husband) and two half-siblings. Sonia was draw into societies like the socially progressive Sunrise Club and the Blue Pencil Club, an amateur journalist affiliate where she met James F. Morton. Because of her connections with the BPC, Sonia attended the July 1921 amateur journalists convention in Boston, Massachusetts…and there, met H. P. Lovecraft.

It was not love at first sight, but there was a connection made, and the two began to correspond. We cannot say exactly what Sonia saw in Lovecraft, but consider her circumstances: a widow or divorcee, a single mother of an almost-grown daughter, financially self-sufficient, with literary interests…and here was an intelligent man who no doubt wrote her extremely gentlemanly yet challenging letters, probably filling pages on topics literary and philosophical…and Sonia apparently answered back. While many memoirs speak of Sonia’s beauty, few of them discuss her intelligence and wit…but Lovecraft did.

Lovecraft persuaded her to join the United Amateur Press Association, the amateur journalism group he was associated with, and she generously subscribed $50 to the fund (the equivalent of a month’s rent in many New York apartments at the time). These first letters do not survive, but based on the remarks that appear in Lovecraft’s letters at the time, and Sonia’s own comments, we can get an idea of some of the contents. For example, when Lovecraft wrote:

Galba, yuh’d orta hear what she says about you in her latest 12-pager! […] I never before saw a nut quite like Mme. Greenevsky—it must be Slavonic blood For pure hot air she may have rivals, but the joke is that there is sound sense and profound literary erudition beneath all the nonsense. So she thinks Grandpa is egotistical? Hell! That’s what she told me at the convention—and then added that she never would have wasted her valuable time in trying to convert me if I were not an unusual specimen, or something like that. Her worst trouble is an absent sense of humour—the poor fish thought it was serious egotism when I told her that I despise all mankind and consider myself a cosmic intelligence aloof from the race. In letters Mme. G. is not at all egotistical—I was surprised at the Uriah-Heepness of her written as distinguished from oral arguments. But Holy Yahveh, what floral rhetoric! However, let me not libel an honest and learned thinker, who is really the most remarkable accession which amateurdom has had for some time.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 104

Alfred Galpin and Lovecraft had been reading and discussing Frederick Nietzsche (or related works like Schopenhauer’s Studies in Pessimism(1890), and Galpin’s essay “Nietzsche as a Practical Prophet”), and this had apparently spilled over into the letters with Sonia. At the same time that this July-August 1921 correspondence was taking place, Sonia and Lovecraft were planning out a new amateur journal, The Rainbow. The first issue (October 1921) contains a nominal essay by Lovecraft titled “Nietzscheism and Realism,” culled from excerpts from two of his letters to Sonia. It’s difficult to judge Sonia’s exact sentiments from Lovecraft’s letters, but some years later she wrote:

Editor Brooklyn Daily Eagle:
In last evening’s Eagle I was amazed to find that Dr. M.P. McDonald has so far misinterpreted Nietzsche’s philosophy as to state that one “should trample his neighbor down,” and that this is so typically exemplified in the subway, where we find even the most modest girls flailing their arms to get into a much crowded car. I fear Dr. McDonald is interpreting the German professor literally.

The proper interpretation to put upon his philosophy is that if Nietzsche had his way, there would never be such crowded subways and there would be no need for trampling of any kind.

It is appalling how many people read Nietzsche and how few know how to interpret him. Any one who really wishes to understand him should read H. L. Menken’s [sic] “The Philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche.” I would advise the biography by Frederic Halevy; after reading which, the reader will find Nietzsche as a practical prophet rather than a destructive one.

The average American girl or boy will answer, when asked about Nietzsche: “Oh, that’s the guy who is to blame for the war.” Upon further inquiry, “Have you read anything by Nietzsche?” you will hear: “Aw, no. I haven’t and I don’t want to! He’s no good to read about anyway!”

As with Caesar, the good is interred with Nietzsche’s bones, and all that appears evil in the eyes of the nonunderstanding majority is flagrantly and maliciously flaunted into the universe.
Sonia Haft Greene to the Brooklyn Eagle, 10 Feb 1931

In her memoir, Sonia also wrote:

Yet, in one of his earliest letters to me, part of which I incorporated in my second issue of the Rainbow, he indicates the true reasons for being kindly, humane, just and merciful.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145)

Nietzsche’s work is also notably antisemitic, which may have tied into another subject that they discussed in their letters: the poet Samuel Loveman, who had been re-introduced to amateur journalism through Lovecraft’s efforts.

Long before H. P. and I were married he said to me in a letter when speaking of Loveman, “Loveman is a poet and a literary genius. I have never met him in person, but his letters indicate him to be a man of great learning and cultural background. The only discrepancy I find in him is that his of the Semitic race, a Jew.”

Then I replied that I was a little surprised at H. P.’s discrimination in this instance—that I thought H. P.. to be above such a petty fallacy—that perhaps our own friendship might find itself on the rocks under the circumstances, since I too am of the Hebrew people […]

It was only after several such exchanges of letters that he put the “pianissimo” on his thoughts (perhaps) and curtailed his outbursts of discrimination. In fact, it was after this that our own correspondence became more frequent and more intimate until, as I then believed, H.P. became entirely rid of his prejudices in this direction, and that no more need have been said about them.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 147-148

Lovecraft apparently urged Sonia to write to Loveman as well. At first, Sonia demurred. However, she had occasion to visit Cleveland, where Loveman lived, and met him there. They got on quite well; Lovecraft heard of the trip through Sonia’s letters:

When I wrote to him later I deplored the fact that he, too, could not have been with us; that his presence would have made my happiness complete for that evening, etc.

In reply I found a letter from him at home which was quite warm and appreciative, coming from him, but even the warmth was bountifully intermixed with reservations.

By this time I had two correspondents: H. P. and S. L.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 133

In September 1921, Sonia stopped in Providence while traveling on business, meeting Lovecraft and his aunts and putting the finishing touches on the first issue of The Rainbow, which was published to some acclaim the next month. Their 1921 letters no doubt discussed the contents, and their letters from October 1921 to early 1922 must have discussed the contents of the second issue, which would be published in May 1922:

I am grateful to Mrs. Greene for her editorial in support of my literary policies, as indeed for many instances of a courtesy & generosity seldom found in this degenerate aera. You may be assur’d that I shall not diminish the frequency of the epistles I send her, tho’ I am of opinion that S. Loveman & my grandchild Alfredus deserve much of the credit for her retention in the United. I regret that she hath suffer’d indignites from Mrs. Houtain; whose cast of mind, I suspect, is not exempt from the petty cruelty & fondness for gossip which blemish the humours of the most commonplace females.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 25 Jan 1922, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 194

However, Sonia also began to push another idea in her letters:

Her latest idea is to have a sort of convention of freaks & exotics in New York during the holidays; inviting for two weeks such provisional sages as Loveman, The Chee-ild [Frank Belknap Long, Jr.], & poor Grandpa Theobald [Lovecraft]! Only a sincere enthusiast could thus think of uprooting such outland fixtures from their native hearths!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 Sep 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 192

The idea of an amateur get-together in New York was a bit bold, but then Sonia had met both Lovecraft and Loveman separately, and must have known from their letters that Lovecraft had never met Loveman and desired to do so. It took some considerable convincing…but Sonia had considerable charm, and perhaps a secondary motive:

It was his prejudice against minorities, especially Jews, that prompted me to invite H. P. and S. L. to spend some time in New York, so that if H. P. never met a Jew before, I was happy to know that for the first time he would meet two of them, both of whom were favorably cultured and enlightened, and that the favored of the race is not limited to this infinitesimal number.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 148

Lovecraft had met Jewish people before, and Sonia’s hope of curing his prejudices didn’t work. However, he did accept her invitation to visit New York in April 1922 (if only to meet Loveman and visit with friends), and his letters to his aunts go into great detail about the attractions of the city and the graciousness of Sonia as a host. Then he departed for home, and their correspondence resumed.

The second (and last) issue of The Rainbow has a cover date of May 1922; this received a bit less attention than the first, and yet it must have been an expensive production. We’ll never know if it was the lack of reception, the cost, busyness on the part of Sonia and Lovecraft, or something else that caused her to cease publication. Yet their relationship continued after Lovecraft’s first New York adventure—and deepened.

Sonia made occasional visits to Providence, and on a trip to Magnolia, Massachusetts in June 1922, she invited Lovecraft to come along. The visit lasted from 26 June-5 July and resulted in the composition of at least two stories: “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” and “Four O’Clock”, with a third tale apparently unpublished.

The trip also saw the start of a new correspondence circle, the Gremolo (Sonia GREene, James F. MOrton, and H. P. LOvecraft), similar to those that Lovecraft already participated in:

By the way—it looks as though the Galpinian cast-asides are going to found a scholastic salon of their own, for this a.m. there blew into the Magnolia P.O. two bulky duplicate letters for Mme. G. & myself, from good ol’ Mocrates [James F. Morton] in Madisonium. He calls the new circle the Gremolo, & doubtless intends it as the standard refuge for rejected second-raters.  […] Mo gives a cruel anecdote in the new Gremolo, which you must not repeat to SL on pain of death.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Jun 1922, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 226

No letters from Lovecraft to the Gremolo (or Morton or Sonia to the Gremolo) have surfaced, so it’s not clear how long it lasted, or if it differed substantially from Lovecraft’s other letters to Morton. Judging by Lovecraft’s letters to other such correspondence groups, they would probably have focused on literature, philosophy, and amateur affairs of mutual interest. Certainly, Lovecraft would not include anything intimate to letters intended for both Morton and Sonia.

Lovecraft and Sonia had seen quite a bit of each other in those early months of 1922, and Sonia noted:

After my vacation in Magnolia we each went to our respective homes. Then our more intimate correspondence began which led to our marriage.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 138

We have very little idea of what this “intimate correspondence” might have looked like or consisted of. Some of it was no doubt cajoling Lovecraft into additional visits; he went down to New York to visit her again in September 1922. Some of it must have discussed the possibility of marriage, and we have a surviving excerpt from such a letter, which Sonia incorporated into an article as “The Psychic Phenominon [sic] of Love”; this was eventually published, at least Lovecraft’s portion, as “Lovecraft on Love” in the Winter 1971 issue of the Arkham Collector. Sonia notes on the manuscript:

It was Lovecraft’s part of this letter that I believe made me fall in love with him; but he did not carry out his own dictum; time and place, and reversion of some of his thoughts and expressions did not bode for happiness.

The September 1922 visit was another success; Sonia and Lovecraft both wrote to Providence encouraging the aunts to come, and the younger aunt Annie E. P. Gamwell took them up on it. When Lovecraft and his aunt returned to Providence, Sonia found opportunities to visit in October and November, and when passing through in July 1923 she dragged Lovecraft along to a visit to Narragansett Pier. All these visits suggest a deepening relationship, but they were no doubt precipitated and followed by letters and postcards. Another subject would rear its head in 1923: Sonia was elected president of the United Amateur Press Association.

I got a note from Mrs. Greene asking to be relieved of the unexpected & cataclysmic presidential burden, but have written back urging her to hang on for dear life until Saas, P. J. C., & I get the matter thrashed out. If she resigns, the office will automatically fall on that impossible creature Mazurewicz—1st Vice-Pres.—which of course means utter chaos. You see we have a definite presidential succession, unlike The National with its need for directorial action. But—I shall not try to do anything, or to ask S. H. G. to serve, unless I am absolutely assured of the active & strenuous cooperation of Daas & Campbell.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 23 Sep 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 55-56

Sonia of course had a full-time job, and probably little to no idea what being president of an amateur press association entailed; no doubt her initial generosity had encouraged the votes for her. We have little idea of her personal life during this period, but she was traveling frequently and it appears that it was during this time period (1921-1923) that her daughter Florence (who Lovecraft had met during the 1922 visit) left her home to work as a journalist.

Weird Tales debuted in 1923, and Lovecraft immediately formed a rapport with the editor Edwin Baird and the proprietor J. C. Henneberger. He sold several stories, including Sonia’s “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared in the October 1923 issue as “The Invisible Monster”—which was no doubt discussed between them. Sonia’s accounts of this period suggests that the correspondence was prolific and heavy:

I well know that he was not in a position to marry, yet his letters indicated his desire to leave his home town and settle in New York. […]

After two years of almost daily correspondence—H. P. writing me about everything he did and everywhere he went, introducing names of friends and his evaluation of them, sometimes filling 30, 40 and even 50 pages of finely written script—he decided to break away from Providence.

During our few years of correspondence and the many business trips I took to New England I did not fail to mention many of the adverse circumstances that were likely to ensure, but that we would have to work out these problems between us, and if we really cared more for one another than for the problems that might stand in our way, there was no reason why our marriage should not be a success. He thoroughly agreed.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 136

Strange as it may sound, Lovecraft’s prospects at this point were positive: he had a lucrative ghost-writing assignment doing a story for Houdini for Weird Tales (“Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”), there were possibilities for remunerative literary work in New York City, he was doing some considerable revision work for David Van Bush, Sonia had her well-paying job and savings, many of his friends were in New York…while the whole thing was a gamble, there were reasons to be optimistic.

So on 3 March 1924, Sonia H. Greene became Sonia H. Lovecraft.

Being, like me, highly individualised; she found average minds only a source of grating and discomfort, and average people only a bore to escape from—so that in our letters and discussions we were assuming more and more the position of two detached and dissenting secessionists from the bourgeois milieu; a source of encouragement to each other, but fatigued to depression by the stolid grey surface of commonplaceness on all sides and relieved only by such isolated points of light as Sonny Belknap, Mortonius, Loveman, Alfredus, Kleiner, and the like.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 9 Mar 1924, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.102

When Sonia and Howard were living together, they had no need to writer letters to one another. Much of what we know about their marriage during this period comes from diary-like entries in Howard’s letters to his aunts, and occasionally to others. A full account of their marriage is beyond the scope of this article, but  it is notable that their period of cohabitation was not long. Health troubles landed Sonia in the hospital; financial troubles struck them as well—Sonia’s high paying job was gone, a hat shop venture failed, Howard’s efforts to secure employment failed consistently, and the new couple were forced to economize—and by December 1924, Sonia had determined that she had to take a position in the Midwest.

Howard would not follow.

Our marital life for the next few months was spent on reams of paper washed in rivers of ink.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 140

H. P. Lovecraft’s letters during 1925-1926 give our only insight into their married life. For most of that period, Howard remained in New York while Sonia worked in Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Chicago, returning to New York for visits whenever she got the opportunity. His letters to his aunts give the flavor of what must have been their almost exchanges:

Her last letter to me before returning sheds so much light on the hard conditions preceding her loss of the post, that I think I will enclose it for you & L D C [Lillian D. Clark] to read.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 26 Feb 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.254-255

In a letter just recd., S H suggests that I drown the memory of my losses in a trip to Saratoga the middle of next month, whilst her employers are away—possibly working a call on nice old Mr. Hoag.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 28 May 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.301

Had a letter from S H yesterday, saying that Mrs. Galpin didn’t shew up in Cleveland at all! She’s quite worried, imagining all sorts of kidnappings, wrecked, & such like; but I fancy Mrs. G. was merely too tired out to relish the Youngstown change of cars, so went straight home to Chicago.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 27 Aug 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.367

Another letter from S H, whose prospects seem unfortunately black. Conditions in new place are uncongenial owing to rivalry of those who sell on occasion. She advises me to move—but I stand by my vote & the results of the election & stay!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 22 Oct 1925, Letters to Family and Family Friends 1.457

For his own part, Lovecraft’s responses seemed to include terms of endearment:

For nearly two years our almost daily exchanges of letters consisted of each assuring the other of real appreciation. On his part it was a case of “Oh, it isn’t you, my dear, it is all the others.” “You don’t know how much I appreciate you!” etc. etc.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 149

Howard’s initial enchantment with New York had by this time soured. He had no job and was supported by money given to him by his absent wife and a few dollars from his aunts, living in a neighborhood of the city swiftly becoming a slum, and someone broke into his rooms and stole his clothes—and Sonia’s wicker valise. His letters to others showcase his increasingly xenophobic and racist sentiments regarding New York and its denizens, particularly Jews, immigrants, and Harlem. Profoundly unhappy, his aunts suggested he return home to Providence, and Sonia supported the move:

S H endorses the move most thoroughly—had a marvellously magnanimous letter from her yesterday. She may be in Cleveland 2 wks. Or more to come, so there’s no need of bothering her with the packing.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 1 Apr 1926, Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.585

For the next three years, Howard would remain in Providence, sometimes visited by Sonia, sometimes traveling down to New York to visit with her, sometimes for weeks as when Sonia again attempted to open a hat shop in Brooklyn in 1928. During such periods when they were together, their correspondence must have ceased, or perhaps been limited to cards as Lovecraft took the opportunity to travel to places within reach of New York in search of colonial antiquities. However, this shop failed too, and Lovecraft returned to Providence.

For the next several months we again lived in letters only. He was perfectly willing and even satisfied to live this way, but not I. I began urging a legal separation, in fact, divorce. […] I told him I did everything I could think of to make our marriage a success, but that no marriage could ever be such in letter-writing only; that a close propinquity was necessary for a true marriage. Then he would tell me of a very happy couple whom he knew, where the wife lived with her parents, in Virginia, while the husband lived elsewhere for reasons of illness, and that their marriage was kept intact through letters. My reply was that neither of us was really sick and that I did not wish to be a long-distance wife “enjoying” the company of a long-distance husband by letter-writing only.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 140-141

Howard protested, but eventually acceded to Sonia’s request. No-fault divorce was not available, but under Rhode Island law Howard could file for divorce on the cause of Sonia having abandoned the marriage, and her failure to respond would be proof of the abandonment. While this legal fiction was pursued, Howard failed to sign and file the final decree—so that they were technically still married, even though Sonia believed they were divorced, and Howard uniformly presented himself as such, in the rare occasions when he mentioned his marriage in later years.

After a year and a half of almost daily letter-writing, back and forth, we were finally divorced in 1929, but we still kept up correspondence; this time it was entirely impersonal, but on a friendly basis, and the letters were far and few between until in 1932 I went to Europe. I was almost tempted to invite him along but I knew that since I was no longer his wife he would not have accepted. However, I wrote to him from England, Germany and France, sending him books and pictures of every conceivable scene that I thought might interest him.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 141

Most of our information on Sonia’s life and her correspondence with Howard came through his letters. Now that they were divorced, their correspondence waned, and Lovecraft’s skittishness to talk about his marriage leads to gaps in the record. One rare reference on their correspondence from 1929-1930:

No—you hadn’t previously mentioned the relay’d greetings from the quondam Mme. Theobald; an incident which prompts the usual platitude concerning the microscopic dimensions of this planetary spheroid. My messages from that direction during the past two years have been confin’d to Christmas & birthday cards, but if occasion arises to exchange more verbose greetings, I shall assuredly add your respects & compliments to my own.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, c. Sep 1930, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 264

There must have been periods of greater activity; during Sonia’s 1932 trip to Europe, which led to Lovecraft compiling and revising her notes into a travelogue: “European Glimpses.” She wrote for him to join her in Connecticut in 1933. It may have been at this time that “Alcestis: A Play” was written, if not earlier. It was their last meeting.

After the Hartford and Farmington visit I did not see Howard again, but we still corresponded, on and off, after I came to California; it was here that I soon met Dr. Davis and remained there.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145-146

Sonia H. Greene married Nathaniel A. Davis in 1936. It is not clear if she ever informed Lovecraft of the marriage, or if by that point they had fallen completely out of touch. Lovecraft’s lists of postcards sent from his Southern travels do not include entries for Sonia. She was apparently not informed of his death by his surviving aunt, Annie E. P. Gamwell, or by any of their mutual friends at that time, and did not learn about it until about a decade later, probably after the death of her third husband in 1946.

As in many cases when discussing Lovecraft’s correspondence, we do not have Sonia’s own letters to Lovecraft to go by. Whether he choose not to keep them or whether he did and they were not preserved after this death is unknown. Certainly, such intimate correspondence as a man might have with his wife might not be something Lovecraft wished preserved for posterity. However, unlike most of his other correspondents, we don’t have almost anything of Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence either.

In her memoir, Sonia states:

I had a trunkful of his letters which he had written me throughout the years but before leaving New York for California I took them to a field and set a match to them. I now have only the one in the Rainbow and one which I received from him after I returned from Europe. But there are still about a dozen picture postal cards that he sent me before our marriage, during and afterward. Some are still of some interest.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 145

As mentioned, Sonia had been largely if not completely out of contact with the world of things Lovecraftian since they parted in 1933. She was not immediately aware of his death, or of the efforts to preserve and publish his fiction and letters, the appointment of R. H. Barlow as his literary executor, the foundation of Arkham House for that purpose in 1939 by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, or the beginnings of critical and biographical efforts in works such as W. Paul Cook’s In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft (Driftwind Press, 1941) and Winfield Townley Scott’s “His Own Most Fantastic Creation: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” (1944). Ultimately, she was made aware of Lovecraft’s demise, posthumous fame, and began to reconnect with friends like Samuel Loveman.

Whether prompted by a friend or on her own initiative, Sonia composed a memoir of her late husband, the raw manuscript of what would become “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” and read part of it to August Derleth in New York in 1947. According to Derleth’s account:

Meanwhile, did I tell you Sonia Lovecraft Davis turned up with some laughable idea of cashing in on HPL’s “fame” and the desire to publish a “frank” book, entitled THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and quoting generously from his letters. She read me part of the ms. in New York, and in it she has HPL posing as a Jew-baiter (she is Jewish), she says she completely supported HPL for the years 1924 to 1932, and so on, all bare-faced lies. I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark. I also forbade her to use any quotations from HPL’s letters without approval from us, acting for the estate. I told her by all means to write her book and I would read it, but it was pathetically funny; she thought she could get rich on the book. She said it would sell easily a million copies! Can you beat it! I tried to point out that a biographical book on HPL by myself, out two years, had not yet sold 1000 copies, and that book combined two well-known literary names. She thought she should have $500 advance on her book as a gift, and royalties besides! I burst into impolite laughter, I fear.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

One salient point is “quoting generously from his letters.” Arkham House had begun the process of collecting and transcribing letters from Lovecraft’s correspondents for the Selected Letters project, but the first volume would not be published until 1964. The letters that Sonia was quoting must therefore have still been in her possession at least as late as 1947.

Post-World War II, and the exposure of the horrors of the Holocaust, public antisemitism was a vastly different manner than it had been during the interwar period. Derleth’s comments shows he was aware of the potential difficulty if Lovecraft’s antisemitism became well-known. While he did not necessarily speak for Lovecraft’s estate, he had received permission from Lovecraft’s surviving aunt Annie E. P. Gamwell to work with Barlow to publish Lovecraft’s work, and Derleth used this as license to be very protective of both Lovecraft’s intellectual property and his image.

Some correspondence from Sonia survives from this period that sheds light on what happened:

Am I to understand that letters HPL had written to me subsequent to our marriage and those he wrote to me afterwards are not my own private property to do with as I choose? That I must not use them in any way I wish? I am not using material he may have written to some else, only that which he has written to me and for; such as my stories & poems revised by him. Do these, too, belong to you?
—Sonia Davis to August Derleth, 13 Sep 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

To be clear: the writer of a letter still has copyright of the contents, even if physical ownership of the letter belongs to someone else. This seems to be the tack that Derleth was taking: in the pretense that he represented Lovecraft’s estate, he was forbidding her from quoting Lovecraft’s correspondence. This was technically a bluff, since Derleth had no such authority…but legal bluster can be useful to a canny businessman. Derleth must have replied in the affirmative, since Sonia wrote:

So upon reflection I wrote to Mr. Derleth telling him I would have my own publisher do the work and that I would use my story of the “Invisible Monster” as revised by H.P. of mine first as well as some very personal letters and poems of his revision.

In reply he shot back a spec. del. letter that all HP. material belong to the estate of H.P.L. and that “Arkham House” (ie. he) alone had full legal rights to its use; and that I was likely to find that the could would restrain the sale of the work, would confiscate & destroy it.

I have written him stating that I had already offered the material to you, but that I may have to retract the offer if I am to be punished for using letters that were addressed to me personally.

Perhaps I am quite ignorant of the law but I cannot see how these can belong to the Lovecraft estate, to Mr. Barlow (as he stated) or to himself! Personally I no longer feel an interest in my past. Other interests have developed since then. However, because Mr. D. & you and others clamored for HPL’s private life with me, I thought it might be a source of income, and at the same time tell some truths that would throw more light on his character and perhaps on his psychology.

Since I do not know the law regarding these matters and as I have no money to start any “fights” it might be the better part of valor to drop the matter altogether, since while I do not fear Mr. D’s veiled threats and open intimidation I’m not in a position to fight.

Mr. D’s method of “high pressuring” me into doing what he wants is not to my taste. It would be interesting to contact the county clerk in Providence and make sure my reasons to believe that H.P. died intestate. If so, how does the property belong to Barlow and Derleth?
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 13 Sep 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

Legal intimidation is a tactic because it works; by this point Sonia was 60 years old and was apparently still in, or had re-entered, the workforce after the death of her third husband. Whether or not one chooses to believe that Derleth was acting in what he thought was Lovecraft’s best interests, his accounts of the affair at the time do not reflect well on him:

I’ve heard from various sources in town that Lovecraft’s wife has suddenly put in an appearance and is causing somewhat of a rumpus. Is this true, or is it, as usual, the kind of ill thought out gossip that is prevalent among the inept citizens of the L. A. Fantasy Society?
—Ray Bradbury to August Derleth, 19 Nov 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Lovecraft’s wife did turn up; she is now a Mrs. Sonia Davis, the widow of the husband (no. 3) she had after HPL. She wrote a biography called THE PRIVATE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT, and wanted to incorporate a lot of his prejudices as if they were major parts of his life, seen through her Yiddish eyes; she also wanted to include letters of Lovecraft, but we pointed out that the only way she could do that would be with our permission first. We have heard nothing further from her, though I had a talk with her in New York City.
—August Derleth to Ray Bradbury, 21 Nov 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Given the circumstances, Sonia made a possibly fateful decision:

Here is what I propose to do with the H.P. material. I’ll send you my version of his biography but not his letters. If you find this sufficiently interesting to review for your newspaper you may use it for whatever monetary consideration it is worth to you.

You may revise and edit it to suit yourself, of course, adhering to the general context, but as I shall wish to use it later for publication I trust there will be no trouble in so doing. That is, I wish to sell the story but not the rights to it. Nor do I wish Derleth to make use of any part of it without my permission.

He wants the story and the letters. And as he has stated that the letters belong to the H.P. estate he would probably copy them and return the original.

The entire story is not yet all typed but if you are still interested I shall type it and you may use what you wish.
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 4 Nov 1947, MSS. John Hay Library

“The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” that we have today is a meandering document, often filled with random remembrances that occur on the page as they occurred to Sonia. Scott heavily edited this manuscript, reorganizing it into a basically chronological narrative of the marriage, retaining most of Sonia’s language and insights, but like the manuscript we have it contains few direct quotes from Lovecraft. The memoir was published as “Howard Phillips Lovecraft As His Wife Remembers Him” published in the Providence Journal 22 Aug 1948. A notable omission in this version of Sonia’s memoir is that it makes no reference to burning a trunk of letters. She does show continued anxiety about the subject:

Derleth told me that I cannot & must not quote H.P. not only from his letters but not even anything he said that might not have been in letters. So that if you can manage to paraphrase, it may be alright. Otherwise Derleth will stop at nothing, to hurt me, even if he had to take me into court. And I’m not in a position to quarrel with him and win, for I have no income other than what I earn.
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 6 Aug 1948, MSS. John Hay Library

Derleth had no way of knowing Sonia had submitted the manuscript to Scott, and apparently had not heard from her in some weeks after her had made his legal threats in early September 1947. So he wrote to her:

I have so far had no reply to my letter of 18 September. Meanwhile, I hope you are not going ahead regardless of our stipulations to arrange for publication of anything containing writings of any kind, letters or otherwise, of H. P. Lovecraft, thus making it necessary for us to enjoin publication and sale, and to bring suit, which we will certainly do if any manuscript containing works of Lovecraft do not pass through our office for the executor’s permission.

You will be interested to know that we now have in Lovecraft’s own letters to his aunts a complete and detailed account of how things went during his entire married life.
—August Derleth to Sonia Davis, 21 Nov 1947, The Normal Lovecraft 29

Derleth was describing the diary-entry letters, some of which do describe their married life in great detail, although certainly leaving out many things a man might say to his wife, and vice versa. Sonia apparently consulted her friends about what to do.

Enclosed is a letter from (August) Derleth. Do you think he is “shooting in the dark”? Bluffing? I answered, telling him as long as he has H.P.’s letters to his aunts he no longer needs my version of the story.
—Sonia Davis to Samuel Loveman, 30 Nov 1947, The Normal Lovecraft 28

Some of the Sonia/Derleth correspondence is not accessible to scholars at this point. Although the letters for the critical period at the end of 1947 exist, they are apparently in private hands. However, Lovecraft and Derleth scholar John D. Haefele quoted one such letter in one of his publications:

You are at perfect liberty to destroy those letters from Lovecraft without showing them to anyone. …. You are not at liberty to publish any part of them without our permission…
—August Derleth to Sonia Davis, 19 Dec 1947, Lest We Forget 15

This strongly suggests that the holocaust of letters Sonia describes may actually have happened at the end of 1947 or early 1948. There is apparently a reference to burning the letters written on the back of Derleth’s letter of 1 October 1965 (Arkham House Archive), but it is difficult to believe that Sonia would have waited until 1965 to burn a trunk of letters: she suffered a heart attack in Summer 1948, and in 1960 she broke her hip, forcing her to move into a nursing home. Late 1947 or early 1948 may have been the last period when Sonia was physically able to accomplish such destruction without assistance.

Sonia and Derleth reconciled, her Lovecraft memories and revisions printed in Arkham House books (except for Alcestis and European Glimpses), and they remained good friends until her death. Even with the destruction of these years of correspondence, one or two odd survivals apparently remained. “The Psychic Phenominon [sic] of Love” being one:

Before burning 400+ letters of H.P.L.’s I copied part of one, adding my own version. After many years, I came across it, and am sending you a copy for permission to try to sell it. I do not know where I can sell it; but if I may use it and am unable to sell it, I will use it as part of my biography which has been invited by the Library of Special Collections at Brown University which is publishing my late husband’s works, N. A. Davis.
—Sonia Davis to August Derleth, 29 Nov 1966, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

As for the cards that Sonia had sent to Lovecraft over the years, they suffered a similar fate:

Mrs. Gamwell also gave the children about a hundred picture postcards that Sonia had mailed to Howard. These all held  loving, spirited messages to H.P.L. from his sweetheart in New York. Not knowing their possible value in the far-away future, I did not hold on to any of these cards bearing Sonia’s signature, written in her breezy, happy handwriting. It was plain to be seen, from the messages on the cards, that this pretty woman of writing ability—among her other gifts—really liked H.P.L.! And the strange part of it all was that he had not once mentioned his love affair to us…and we were his very good friends.

The children played for hours with the cards, and they eventually went the way all children’s toys go…in the ash-heap!
—Muriel E. Eddy, The Gentleman From Angell Street 17

That is essentially the end of what we know for Sonia H. Greene’s letters to H. P.  Lovecraft. “Lovecraft on Love” and “Nietzscheism and Realism” are the major letter-excerpts that remain; the former has not been reprinted as far as I can determine, while the latter is available in several collections, notably Arkham House’s Miscellaneous Writings and the Necronomicon Press facsimile of The Rainbow.

In some of H. P. L.’s letters to me he often spoke of reincarnation, but I do not think he believed in it.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 150

We are so fortunate, as readers and scholars, that so many of Lovecraft’s letters have survived. Not only for what they tell us about Lovecraft himself, but about the people he interacted with, the lives and relationships he had with women like Sonia H. Greene. Through his surviving letters to his aunts and friends, we have a deeper, more complete idea of his marriage and his critical formative period in New York. She was a critical part of his life, and we would not know as much as we do about Sonia without his letters.

Yet, there is always that regret that we couldn’t know more. That decisions were made which cost us that inside glimpse at her life with Lovecraft, her love affair with a man who, while he would go on to become a legend, was at once just a husband trying to make the best of it in the big city…and things didn’t work out. They grew apart. The letters and postcards just stopped one day.

As they must. No one lives forever, no relationship lasts forever. Normally when we look at the correspondence with Lovecraft, the story we tell really stops when Lovecraft dies; but Sonia’s story went on…and her story and his are intimately intertwined, even in death.


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

Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes & Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro

The fact that H. P. Lovecraft worked as a ghostwriter and reviser of other’s writing is common knowledge. Most of the work that receives attention is the weird fiction which he wrote for clients, to appear under their names in pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Wonder Stories, but Lovecraft’s revision services were much broader, covering everything from poetry (such as his work for David Van Bush and Josephine Evalyn Crane Blossom) to travelogues, such as European Glimpses (1988) by Sonia H. Greene.

Two of these works, Old World Footprints (1928) by Cassie Symmes and Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929) by Adolphe de Castro, are both connected with Lovecraft and his long-time friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr. By the late 1920s Long had set out to be a professional writer, and had published several short stories in Weird Tales, including “The Were-Snake” (1925), a book of poems, A Man from Genoa and Other Poems (1926). That book was underwritten by his aunt, Cassie Symmes, and printed by W. Paul Cook. Symmes was so impressed with the production that she hired Cook to produce a travelogue of her 1924-1927 trips to Europe, asking her nephew to provide the preface. Lovecraft was asked to correct the proofs.

Lovecraft did a little more than that. For many decades, Old World Footprints remained one of the rarest works of Lovecraftiana, but a 2021 reprint from Bold Venture Press has finally made it available to the average fan. Dave Goudsward tracks the history of Lovecraft’s involvement, including where and how Lovecraft touched up Symmes’ prose, to the extant that he basically ghost-wrote Long’s preface.

I concocted a euphemistic hash for young Long to sign—a preface to a tame travel-book by his aunt that bored him so badly he couldn’t think of anything to say! He didn’t want to turn down the request for a preface—so got me to cook up some amiable ambiguities for him.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 19 Dec 1929, quoted in Old World Footprints (2021) 54

As the text of the travelogue itself is very short, the book is expanded with a biographical essay on Cassie Symmes, with focus on her involvement with all things Lovecraftian—she was, for instance, the person who gave Frank Belknap Long, Jr. a small statuette of the Hindu god Ganesa, which in turn inspired the figure of Chaugnar Faugn in Long’s novelette The Horror from the Hills (Weird Tales Jan—Feb-Mar 1931). The book also contains a collection of quotes from Lovecraft’s letters about Symmes and the book, making it a single point of reference for those who don’t own or wish to dig through multiple volumes of letters. Even for those not interested in the travelogue might yet find some interest in the light it sheds on Lovecraft & Long’s friendship.

I was asked to provide the foreword to this book, and one of the key points I made in that bears repeating here: even if you though you’d read everything Lovecraft had to offer, you almost certainly haven’t read this.

Long’s involvement with Portrait of Ambrose Bierce would be more substantial, while Lovecraft’s would be slighter. In 1927, Adolphe Danziger de Castro received some nationwide attention when an article he wrote supposedly giving some insight to how his one-time friend Ambrose Bierce had died was picked up by the Associated Press. De Castro sought to parlay this fifteen minutes of fame into an opportunity to revise and reprint some of his fiction, which was badly out of date, and he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft to do this. Lovecraft was willing to consider the revision work…and then de Castro made a further suggestion:

Now, to something else. you probably have seen the flash of publicity I have received lately with regard to Bierce. I have written the first part of a book, BIERCE AND I. It is the part relating to the west. I lost over two thousand letters of B. in the San Francisco fire. but the letters, 14 in all, he wrote me since 1900 I have and with these I am going to build the second part. Bob Davis assures me that he will get me a publisher at once. This means that I would be able to realize some money from the work. In this work, however, no revision as you suggest for the story is possible, for the reason that it my “I” that enters in the work and my style, with the exception of some expression here and there, is fairly well known. As these are purely reminiscences, even the aesthetic arrangement could not be changed. As the matter of the story is virtually settled—and it would please me if I could get it next week – what idea can you suggest about BIERCE AND I?
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 8 Dec 1927, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 346

Lovecraft did revise some of de Castro’s fiction, and did so for “The Last Test” (Weird Tales Nov 1928), “The Electric Executioner” (Weird Tales Aug 1930), and a third revision. It appears during 1928 Lovecraft had recommended that Long might also help de Castro in some way, but de Castro was fixed on Lovecraft as a potential reviser or collaborator:

However, since I wrote you I added about fifty thousand words to the Bierce book, original matter written by Bierce and bearing on certain reminiscences I note.

The title of the book will not be BIERCE AND I but simply AMBROSE BIERCE. As I appear in the book a great deal as the teller of the story I deemed the former title over-descriptive.

What pains me, I frankly confess, is that there are probably many literary blemishes of which a book of this sort ought to be absolutely free. But I have written more than 115,000 words and have grown very tired. It is equally obvious that I cannot have the work done—as correctors might prove correctioners—spoiling the personal tone for an assumed form. It is not every one, my friend, who has your sure touch and is so sympathetic to the subject under discussion.

Albert & Charles Boni have the matter under consideration (this is in confidence, of course) but there are a number of publishers quite desirous of bringing out the book
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 25 Feb 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others 351

It was at this point that Frank Belknap Long re-enters the picture:

Old Danziger-de Castro is now in touch with Belknap, & that little imp has just revised his memoirs of Bierce absolutely free of charge, in return for the privilege of prefixing a signed preface! Belknap thinks it will bear him onward toward fame to be thus visibly connected with a work likely to become a standard source-authority for future Bierce biographers. […] It seems that de Castro has written a great deal of more or less solid material, besides serving the government in several important capacities—consular & otherwise. Belknap says he is 62 years old, stout, & genial.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 16 Mar 1928, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 206

Ambrose Bierce in 1928 was much more famous than he is today, and the mystery of his disappearance—and the pop-culture trends that were already circulating regarding it; in 1932 Charles Fort’s book Wild Talents would propose the theory that someone was collecting Ambroses, which would enter the modern lore of conspiracy theory, pseudoscience, and UFO abductions. While today Mythos fans might recognize Bierce as the author of “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” (1886) and “Haïta the Shepherd” (1891), which Robert W. Chambers drew on for The King in Yellow (1895), in the 1920s Bierce occupied a position closer to that which Lovecraft himself would later occupy, recognized as a master of the weird tale with stories like “The Damned Thing” (1893) as a thematic precursor to Lovecraft’s own “The Unnameable” and “The Color Out of Space.”

So Long’s desire to attach his name to a piece of Bierce scholarship is a little more understandable in that context than it might be today. However, once de Castro got the preface and revised manuscript back, he wrote to Lovecraft again:

Now to something else…Belknap Long wrote a nice bit of preface to my Bierce book; but I’ll be this, that and t’other, if I like the book as I wrote it; although Belknap thinks it very good. There is something missing in it, something I could do if I were away from harassing conditions and disturbing elements. It has been read by three publishers and rejected on a certain expressed criticism and the adulti stulti seem not to comprehend that I know better than they what is the trouble. The book is written by the person who for more than twenty-five years was in closest touch with Ambrose Bierce with little confidences that no other human being knew or heard. Naturally it is written in the first person singular—how else could it have the personal touch? However, this makes it “reminiscent” rather than biographical, and they want a pure unadulterated biography—although not quite true, as one publisher expressed it; and this publisher actually offered a big advance royalty—what do you think of that? No wonder I am bewildered and don’t know how, where, and to whom to turn. nor have I put any great criticism of Bierce’s works in my book, but I have left out oceans of matter of most interesting personal character—not wishing to make the book too long.
—Adolphe de Castro to H. P. Lovecraft, 1 Apr 1928, Letters to Alfred Galpin and Others
 353-4

In his letters to de Castro, Lovecraft is unfailingly polite. In his letters to others, he is much more direct about the whole matter:

As for the memoirs themselves—alas! They are again set back to the raw material stage. Belknap did not take any job away from his old grandpa—he refused to consider it till old ‘Dolph stated positively that he could not have the work done by anybody on any cash basis whatsoever. But behold & lament! Though the job is done, yet it isn’t—for since the revision no less than three publishers have rejected the MS. on the ground that the style is still too crude, & the material still too ill-proportioned! I thought that Belknap must have made a rather light job of it when he said that he did that whole long book MS. in only two days—& lo! That is just about what did happen! Now old ‘Dolph is looking for a regular recasting in the slow, extensive, & painfully conscientious manner of Grandpa Nekrophilos—indeed, a suggestion from the third & latest rejecting publisher has led him to consider a radical change of plan, & an abandonment of the memoir style for a regular biographical treatise in the third person. This, of course, means a radical text-upheaval which really amounts to collaboration rather than revision. But—eheu!—though his ideas are bigger, his purse most infelicitously isn’t; so that he plaintively announces himself as ‘bewildered, & at a loss how, where, & to whom to turn’. He hems & haws & alludes delicately to the ‘almost certain’ profits of the biography if it can be properly formulated & launched—placing the likely receipts most alluringly at about $50,000.00. [Fancy!] What he is leading up to is undoubtedly a proposition for me to do the work on a speculative basis—i.e., for a certain percentage of the possible royalties—but right here is where Grandpa pauses for sombre reflection! As a piece of work—rightly done—it would be a staggering all-summer asphyxiation cutting off alike my immediately remunerative revision, & any possible original fiction I might wish to write. In exchange for this sacrifice I would have a double gamble, with two exceedingly doubtful spots—(a) whether any publisher would take the damn thing after all, & (b) whether, being published, it would really drag in enough to make a collaborator’s percentage anything more than a joke. Yes—the old gentleman will be very deliberate! Moreover—I don’t know how big a percentage a collaborator really ought to ask. And yet, at that, there’s certainly great stuff in the book; real source material that no future Bierce student (if such the coming years may hold) can afford to overlook. Belknap went wild over it—eating up every word so avidly that he didn’t see any mistakes at all until he started to go over it a second time with critical pencil in hand—& I shall be glad to get a chance to read the MS. myself. Old ‘Dolph still talks of making a stage-coach trip to Providence—& I shall certainly receive him with civility if he does. But in my opinion he’d better stick to Belknap—who is right on he ground for personal consultation, & who is willing to toil for fame alone—as his collaborator, telling him just how extensive he wants the changes, & giving him plenty of time to make a really thorough job. In recompense he ought to include the Child’s name on the title-page—”Ambrose Bierce: By Adolphe de Castro & Frank Belknap Long, Jun.” Just how much fame it would bring Belknap remains to be seen. The book is no mere controversial item—it’s a long string of general Bierce reminiscences—& now that a triple rejection has chastened him, Old ‘Dolph would probably be willing to cut down the [“Monk and the Hangman’s Daughter”] episode till it occupied a less disproportionate space in his whole oeuvre.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 5 Apr 1928, LWP 209-210

There was a bit of back and forth, and Lovecraft & Long actually met with de Castro at the latter’s apartment in New York City. However, Lovecraft was less than hopeful about the outcome:

I’m afraid the old duffer can’t or won’t pay a decent advance price, hence I doubt if I take the revision job after all; though I shall read the book fully & prepare a helpful synopsis & list of suggestions. My own interest impels me to do this—& I  have promised him such a list by next Thursday.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Apr 1928, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.635

The next few months were trying; de Castro continued to pester Lovecraft to work on the book, and Lovecraft refused to do so for less than $150 up front—a sizable fee for a very sizable job, and less than de Castro had been paid for the stories Lovecraft had revised for him had sold for. Nevertheless, it seems like Lovecraft did send his promised list of suggestions, and Long did apparently do a light revision of the text, and eventually de Castro managed to sell it:

Old Adolphe de Castro has turned up again, & is pestering Belknap & me with dubious revision propositions. He says the Century Co. has just accepted his Bierce book, which is surely interesting if true. He claims to have just returned from a European trip.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 2/9/16 Nov 1928, Essential Solitude 1.167

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce (1929, Century Co.) was published in attractive hardcover, complete with photographic plates, a fold-out facsimile of Bierce’s “The Town Crier” articles of 1969, and a brief prologue by Frank Belknap Long (who signed himself, in James Branch Cabell’s fashion, as simply “Belknap Long.”) The extent of Long’s revision of the manuscript isn’t clear, a comparison of the table of contents for Bierce and I that de Castro had mailed to Lovecraft (LAGO 350) and the final table of contents of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce shows many of the chapters are nearly identical, so there was no major re-shuffling of the contents. Still, it appears de Castro might have taken some advice from Lovecraft:

Old De Castro’s book has been attacked quite violently by some reviewers—& not unjustly, since it is truly a slovenly & egotistical concoction which doesn’t give Bierce half his due. I have glanced through the printed copy, I see that the author took all of my advice regarding deletions, though giving me no credit therefor. Belknap’s preface opens with a misprint—Beaudlaire.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Apr 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 173

Aside from this, Lovecraft never claimed to have any part in the final text of Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and in truth it’s difficult to see any part of the book he might have had a hand in. The tone throughout is from de Castro’s point of view, and one would be hard-pressed to find a word distinctive of Lovecraft’s vocabulary or philosophy, unless it be in Long’s own preface. Certainly, the book does not deal even cursorily with Bierce’s weird fiction; Lovecraft’s friend Samuel Loveman’s 21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce (1922) is cited in the bibliography, but under the wrong title. Certainly if Lovecraft did have any direct hand in the book, he would have striven to correct that error. When Long finally saw the finished product, he was nonplussed:

First we stopped at Kirk’s, where the Child took a look at De Castro’s Bierce book with his preface in it. The result was something of a shock; for there were many grave misprints, & old De Castro had interpolated a whole section of a personal letter which Belknap wrote him in praise of the volume. Sonny intends, however, to buy the book eventually. It was a cheap trick of old De Castro’s not to give us both free copies!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 28-29 Apr 1929, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.761

Portrait of Ambrose Bierce was not the end of Lovecraft’s personal and professional relationship with de Castro, although it seems to have been the end of de Castro’s professional relationship with Long. The poor reception of the book seems to have negated any hoped-for recognition association with it might bring, and the book itself is of relatively limited value to Bierce scholars, since so much of the facts are filtered through de Castro’s own self-importance and determination to give himself what he felt was due credit—often at the expense of Bierce, and in the bibliography at the expense of Bierce’s friend the poet George Sterling, who had committed suicide in 1926. That was in exceptionally poor taste.

If it’s a failure as a work of biography, as an artifact, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce is interesting as another thread in the web of connections between two masters of the weird tale—aside from his association with de Castro (The Monk & the Hangman’s Daughter, Portrait of Ambrose Bierce), and Samuel Loveman (21 Letters of Ambrose Bierce), Lovecraft was also connected to Bierce through Clark Ashton Smith, whose mentor was George Sterling (and Sterling had actually commented on Lovecraft’s story “Dagon”). There are some more obscure connections, if you dig for them, in certain anecdotes in Lovecraft’s letters. Robert E. Howard ended up reading Portrait of Ambrose Bierce, and brought it up in is letters to Lovecraft (A Means to Freedom 1.453, 2.539).

Perhaps belatedly, the affair also cemented Lovecraft’s professional standing with regard to de Castro:

Just heard from old De Castro—he thinks his Bierce book would have been better received if I had revised it! Well—if he’d been willing to pay, I’d have been willing to work!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 5 Jun 1929, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 176

Lovecraft never would revise any full-length book for de Castro, although he did do a revision or two—cash up front.

What these two books show is that there was a lot more to Lovecraft’s career as a revisionist than just his weird fiction—and that when it came to revision, as opposed to fiction written for his own aesthetics, Lovecraft could be somewhat mercenary. Although he was always willing to help out a friend, Lovecraft couldn’t afford to take big revision jobs without the promise of pay—an attitude which would, eventually, see him get out of the revision business altogether.


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

The Village Green (192?) by Edith Miniter

Meanwhile [R. H. Barlow] has elected himself a sort of successor to Cook & me as literary executor for Mrs. Miniter, & is busily going over the huge bale of unclassified Miniteriana which Cook sent here last year. Amongst this material is the long-lust novelette of 1923 (about a literary club with figures taken from the Hub Organisation—I am recognisably depicted!) called “The Village Green” […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Edward H. Cole, 15 Aug 1936, Letters to Albert Galpin & Others 143

Even during his lifetime, H. P. Lovecraft was a character that blurred the lines between reality and fiction. His personal myth was born by the persona he projected in his vast correspondence—but his encounters with folks he met in-person were no less memorable. Frank Belknap Long, Jr. famously killed a fictionalized Howard in “The Space-Eaters” (Weird Tales, July 1928), one of the first Cthulhu Mythos stories; Robert Bloch did the same thing in “The Shambler from the Stars” (Weird Tales, Sep 1935), and Lovecraft’s wife would base a character on him in “Four O’Clock” (1949). In the decades that followed his death, Lovecraft would enter fully into his own mythology; August Derleth would cite his books alongside the Necronomicon, and out past the known planets Richard A. Lupoff would find him in “The Discovery of the Ghooric Zone” (1977). Since then Lovecraft’s image has appeared in short fictions, comics, manga, games, and other media. Actor Jeffrey Combs even famously played him in Necronomicon: Book of the Dead (1993)—with the aid of a prosthetic to mimic Lovecraft’s prognathous jaw.

Yet one of the earliest literary depictions of H. P. Lovecraft has been read by very few people.

A group that didn’t feel interested in jaunty publications talked just as jauntily about literature, and not entirely their own. Indeed the large man with the long chin, who had received a letter from “Bob” Davis containing the words: “It (The Bats in the Belfry) is splendidly written, but it exceeds the speed limit….I have been some time coming to a conclusion about this story, but I didn’t want to push the matter hastily. Even now I may be wrong….” took the confession in a nonchalant manner that shocked his confreres.
—Edith Miniter, The Village Green and Other Pieces 147

“The large man with the long chin” is later identified as H. Theobald, Jr.; “Theobald” being one of Lovecraft’s pseudonyms in amateur journalism, as seen in “To Mr. Theobald” (1926) by Samuel Loveman. To appreciate the characterization, it is necessary to be familiar with the author.

Edith May Dowe Miniter (1867-1934) was a journalist, both amateur and professional. She became involved in amateur journalism at age 13, edited and published many papers, and was largely associated with the Hub Club in Boston, Massachusetts, and the National Amateur Press Association; she would serve terms as president of both organizations, the first woman to hold executive office in amateur journalism, and even met her husband through amateur journalism (NAPA History, Early Amateur Journalism in Massachusetts, and “The Other Miniter: In Search of John T. Miniter” in The Fossil 386).

Through amateur journalism, Edith Miniter met Lovecraft. They actually met in person at the 1921 National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston, where Lovecraft would also meet his future wife Sonia H. Greene. Miniter’s amateur journals contain many insightful snippets on folks including Lovecraft and Winifred Virginia Jackson. She was noted particularly for her wit, which was scathing and unsparing, but also often irreverent and universal, an example of which is “Falco Ossifracus” (1921), the first parody and pastiche of Lovecraft’s particularly florid style. Lovecraft in turn wrote poems dedicated to her and her cats, and held the elder stateswoman of amateur journalism in high esteem.

While she published many stories and poems, her only novel was Our Natupski Neighbors (1916); she started other novels, including The Village Green, but never completed any of them before her death in 1934. Lovecraft was one of those who helped scatter her mother’s ashes in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, whose scenery and lore had helped to inform “The Dunwich Horror.” Her papers first went to fellow amateur journalist W. Paul Cook, and then Lovecraft’s teenaged friend R. H. Barlow, whom had been introduced to amateur journalism through Lovecraft, got involved. Barlow would eventually publish Miniter’s short story “Dead Houses” in his journal Leaves, alongside other pieces from the Lovecraft circle, and some of her papers were later donated to the John Hay Library along with Lovecraft’s materials.

The Village Green, however, would languish mostly inaccessible until 2013 when it was finally published in The Village Green and Other Pieces, edited by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. and Sean Donnelly. The editors suggest that the novel was written circa 1923-1925, and go on to say:

Make no mistake—the editors make no exaggerated claims for The Village Green, whose portrait of a local literary club patterned on Edith’s Hub Club never really jells into a coherent narrative. (xi)

The unfinished novel is very old fashioned by contemporary standards, in terms of prose and framing, but of its time it would have been quite candid. It is Dickensian in the sense that it is a novel of incidents and episodes, often prosaic, fragments of discussion with layers of a social game of manners both implicit and explicit; it is similar to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) in that it is a starkly realistic example of the inner lives of ordinary people, including their sexual affairs—though while Miniter is explicit that the affairs happen, she isn’t explicit about any of the details of coitus itself. The result never quite comes together, because, much like life, it just continues on until it stops. Probably the closest comparison would be some of August Derleth’s output of regional literature called the Sac Prairie Saga.

Lovecraft’s character is probably the main drew of the novel for most. The reference to “The Bats in the Belfry” is, I suspect, a reference to “Bat’s Belfry,” the first story by August Derleth in Weird Tales (May 1926), which if true might indicate Miniter was working on the manuscript rather later than 1925. The scenes or episodes with H. Theobald, Jr. are few, yet as Lovecraft noted, he is easy to recognize:

Theobald—the man with the long chin—opined that this retort had been ancient in the 18th century. At this arose a fusillade of comments. Theobald did not really try to live in the 18th century, though he might date letters 1723 and refer to Colonies. Had he actually asked for a typewrite with a long “s”? Did he smoke the pipes of that period—did he read newspapers of that day? “I hate to say it, but you’re nothing better than an anachronism, Theobald,” observed Trinkett.

Theobald calmed the tumult with an upraised hand—the too white hand of an invalid. “‘Tis plain,” he said, “that my character is receiving a Dickensonian or 19th century distortion to the grotesque, which well conceals the quiet manners of a gentleman of Geo. the II’s reign. You must know that in my time ’twas thought monstrous vulgar to excite remark in publick assemblies; and that no matter how humorsome a queer old fellow might be he would save his odd humors for the coffee-house, nor seek to drag them into a rout of any sort of mixt genteel company.”
—Edith Miniter, The Village Green and Other Pieces 148

It is hard to tell how much of this is true to life for Lovecraft’s behavior in person, and how much of it is Miniter gently taking the piss with her good friend. Her amateur journal pieces which mention Lovecraft don’t tend to go into this level of detail in putting words into his mouth, but at the same time these are very similar sentiments—and spellings—to what Lovecraft would include in his correspondence with others. If it’s a parody or a caricature, it is a gentle one, and Theobald’s insistence on being a 17th century gentleman in the 20th century is not too far from what Lovecraft often presented himself as. Whether Miniter actually quotes directly from Lovecraft is impossible to say at this remove.

The Village Green will probably be too much for weird fiction fans; the decidedly non-fantastic plot and incomplete status will likely shy away everyone except historians and Lovecraft scholars. Yet it is important not to forget what it represents: Lovecraft’s impact on the lives of those around him, including women like Edith Miniter, who wished to immortalize her friend in one of her stories. While incomplete, the novel stands as a testament to an important figure in amateur journalism history, a regional writer whose work is often unrecognized today, and deserves to be better appreciated for what she wrote and accomplished in her life.

The manuscript for The Village Green is available online at the John Hay Library.


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: Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell

My other aunt was yet a very young lady when I first began to observe events around me. She was rather a favourite in the younger social set, & brought the principal touch of gayety to a rather conservative household. To the sprightly conversation & repartee of this younger generation, I owe  my first lessons in the school of Pope. I could sense the artificiality of the atmosphere, & often strove to ape the airs & affectations of those whom I observed & studied. I extracted not a little celebrity & egotism from my mimicry of various types of callers; particularly one Edward F. Gamwell, who next to my grandfather was my ideal male. I was infinitely delighted when this individual (then a Brown student) decided upon a lasting affiliation with the family. The engagement of my aunt & Mr. Gamwell, & the customary levity of the younger set in their good-natured raillery of the two, imparted to me a curiously worldly cynicism regarding sentimental matters, & forever turned my Muse from the field which you so gracefully adore.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 16 Nov 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 64

Anna Emeline Gamwell was the youngest of the five children of Whipple Van Buren Phillips and Rhoby Alzada (Place) Phillips. She was born 10 July 1866, the year after the American Civil War ended, and a decade after her oldest sister, Lillian Delora Phillips. Her formal education occurred at Miss Abbott’s School for Young Ladies in Providence, graduating in the class of 1885 at 19 years old. It is not clear if she was employed after graduating, but for the next twelve years Annie continued to live with her parents and family.

She was still present in the household when her second-oldest sister Sarah Susan Phillips married Winfield Scott Lovecraft in 1889, and when her nephew Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born in the family home in 1890. Winfield was institutionalized for general paresis (late-stage syphilis) in 1893, and so Howard’s earliest memories of his aunt would have been from this period, growing up with her in the family home.

Alone, [Joel Dorman Steele] covered half the major sciences with his “fourteen weeks in Astronomy”, ditto Geology, Chemistry, Physics, Botany, Physiology, Zoölogy….& more, for all I know (these being the ones I have)….& in conjunction with his wife, Esther Baker Steele, he prepared for A. S. Barnes & Co. the series of histories (Ancient, Mediaeval-Modern, Greek, Roman, French, American, &c. &c.) known as Barnes’ Brief Histories. When my younger aunt was in school she had about all of these books, & I seized on them myself—as they reposed on attic shelves—when I was very young, later picking up a few which she had not preserved.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Wilfred Blanch Talman, Dec 1931, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman 190

She was still in the household in the 1890s when the family fortunes began to shift:

[…] the reminder of old events took her back in fancy to that trying period in the earlier 1890’s when the first dam broke. The telegram to my grandfather announcing the bad news came at midnight, & she was the only person in the house who was wakened by the doorbell. She signed for the message & waked my grandfather—& he did not get much sleep during the rest of the night!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 23 Dec 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 119-120

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The Boston Glove, 4 June 1897, 9

On 3 June 1897, Annie married Edward Francis Gamwell, a newspaperman who worked as city editor of the Cambridge Chronicle (1896-1901), then editor and proprietor of the Cambridge Tribune (1901-1912), and editor of the Budget and American Cultivator (1913-1915). She moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts with her husband, and gave birth to two children: Phillips Gamwell in 1898, and Marion Roby Gamwell (1900), who died just five days after birth.

Early letters must exist from a young H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt’s household, for Howard was fond of his young cousin despite the eight years that separated them, but these letters are no longer extent. At some point in his teens, however, Phillip Gamwell contracted tuberculosis. In October 1916, Annie took her son to Roswell, Colorado to stay with her in-laws, in hopes that the climate would help arrest his illness. Phillips Gamwell died on 31 December 1916. Annie and her husband separated, and she returned to Providence to stay with her widowed brother Edwin Phillips.

In 1904 Whipple Phillips had died, and the family home had been broken up. Howard Lovecraft and his mother Susie lived together in a house on the same street, and were still there when Annie returned to the city. Lovecraft had failed to graduate highschool, or to find employment; but he had emerged into the world of amateur journalism, where his literary ability was quickly making a splash. Edwin Phillips died in 1918, and from this point on Annie appears to have lived in rented quarters in Providence. In 1919, perhaps driven by financial concerns, Susie Lovecraft’s health broke down, and she was confined to Butler Hospital, where Winfield Lovecraft had died in 1898. Annie and her elder sister Lillian began to keep house for their nephew; Annie also worked, the 1920 census records Annie Gamwell working as a public school teacher, and she was also librarian in Col. George Shepley’s private collection of Rhode Islandiana for at least some period.

The first surviving letter from H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell is dated 19 August 1921—four months after the death of Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft at Butler Hospital. Howard had gone to Boston for the National Amateur Press Association convention, his first trip away from home as an adult. The letters give a deep and in-depth account of the whole convention, though curiously he does not mention meeting Sonia Haft Greene, a divorced Jewish Russian immigrant who had joined amateur journalism.

Those early letters set the tone; when in Providence, Howard and his aunts were in close contact, when he traveled afar, they kept in touch by frequent, often detailed letters, which assumed a diary-like character. The courtship between Howard and Sonia proceeded across rivers of ink and a number of visits between 1921-1924. Lovecraft’s aunts met Sonia during this period, and it appears that Annie and Sonia became particularly close. Why isn’t exactly clear; Lovecraft’s letters contain frequent mentions of Annie’s friends and alludes to many social activities that suggest Annie was the more gregarious and outgoing of the two aunts, and the more able and prone to travel. Annie actually visited Sonia and Howard during a trip to New York, which occasioned Sonia to pen a note to her:

Darling,
Ten minutes after your special to Howard I am rushing this off to you. Gee! I’m so glad you can come! For the length of time you can stay, can be decided on after you get here.

It doesn’t make any difference about my own lack of time just now—because Howard and Belknap and maybe Morton can take you to places of interest in the daytime and you can rest comfortably in the evenings talking to me, while Howard can go out if he wishes or remain with us.

And on Saturday evening and Sunday the three of us can have a perfectly lovely time[.]

My Dear, I do hope you can stay a long time! Who knows? I’m a regular female Micawber—something unexpected may happen—pleasureable [sic] and beneficial so that you can remain here.

I just can’t wait until you get here.

With eager and pleasureable anticipation

I am
Lovingly Yours
Sonia
—Sonia H. Greene to Annie E. P. Gamwell, 24 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.73

For his part, Howard noted:

For friendliness and generosity she sure beats hell—she is so stuck on my younger aunt Mrs. Gamwell, that she’s trying to get her to come to N.Y. and permanently share her abode! And strange to say, my aunt likes her immensely despite a racial and social chasm which she doesn’t often bridge.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 21 Jun 1922, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 102-103

Perhaps they just got along. Or perhaps Sonia was already thinking of Lovecraft as more than just a good friend and wanted to be friends with her potential in-laws. It might have been during this particular trip when Sonia alleges that Annie confided certain things to her about the family:

No doubt some sexual admonitions arose also, for the entire family, according to what Sonia recalls Annie Gamwell telling her, knew of Winfield Lovecraft’s paresis, and the adventures with prostitutes and women on his lengthy travels that gave him his affliction. In fact, Annie told Sonia prior to her marrying HPL that they could not have children—in fact this was a warning that Annie was giving to Sonia, and to me her choice of words was interesting—could not instead of should not.
—R. Alain Everts, Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sex

How much we can trust Everts’ second- or third-hand information is unclear; Sonia herself does not make this statement in her memoir The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft, nor has it been published elsewhere, nor did Annie make any reference to it after Howard’s death. If Annie did confide this information, it did not stop the sudden engagement and marriage of Howard and Sonia in 1924—nor were Annie and Lillian informed until after the marriage had been completed.

Lillian and Annie were apparently in close contact during this period, and Lovecraft’s letters to both of his aunts are nearly interchangeable in picking up the diary where it had left off earlier. The elder sister, Lillian, was living at 598 Angell St., while Annie apparently kept her own separate quarters.

By 1926, Sonia and Howard separated, and he returned to Providence. Sonia in her memoir claims that the aunts made it clear that Sonia could not be seen to support her husband in Providence; it is not clear how to reconcile this with the apparently friendly relationship between Sonia and Annie c.1922-1925—but circumstances can change. Lillian was older, and possibly more conservative; Annie was more tied in to Providence’s social life, and thus perhaps more conscious of social status. We don’t know.

Initially, Howard apparently lived apart from both his aunts, but very soon after his return Lillian took ill and it fell on Howard to assist her until a nurse could be obtained. Why Annie could not fulfill this function is unclear (possibly age, she was 60 years old in 1926). If she was still employed at the time, it might explain why she left the care of her elder sister to her nephew. Soon, Lillian and Howard would combine households at 10 Barnes St., while his younger aunt continued to live in her own quarters.

Annie and Howard were not in any way distant, however. Like her nephew, Annie had the travel bug, and liked to visit places, either on her own or in the company of her nephew. In October 1926 they went on a tour of locations related to the family, including the village of Greene, Rhode Island which Whipple Phillips had renamed, the Ionic Lodge No. 28 he had founded, the house where Lillian was born, and other such sites connected to their family. On her own, Annie Gamwell would travel south to Atlantic City and Florida, and north to Ogunquit, Maine. It is apparent from Lovecraft’s letters that Annie would also write while on her travels, as he himself would do.

Annie was also, like her nephew, very attached to the family home and better days, which might be shown by two incidents, the first reported by Sonia:

Upon one of my trips to Providence before H. P. and I were married, Mrs. Gamwell and he took me to see the old homestead, with its beautiful, spacious grounds and huge stables (this was before it was turned into a modern office building), three sides of which today form a street with many houses. With still a great deal of regret and much pride Mrs. Gamwell showed me the horse-block at the cub, and lovingly ran her hand over it. It was twilight at the time and I was not quite able to see distinctly, but when she turned her head away, I think it was to hide the tears that welled up in her eyes.
—Sonia H. Davis, “The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 120.

Roughly a decade later, in 1932 the stables were torn down:

my surviving aunt, then a small girl, put a tin box of records into the unfinish’d walls, to be exhum’d & studied by the archaeologists of a fabulous posterity. Alas that she shou’d live to see its destruction & reclaim the records herself! Last summer, when the workmen had it partly razed, she went over & looked in the place where she had put the records 51 years before. They were still there—Harsford’s Baking Powder box rusted but intact, & the contents only slightly touched by the mould of intervening aeons. My aunt’s tintype, & that of a youthful friend (now dead) quite decipherable, & their messages to a future civilisation legible in every part. She still has the box—but alas, we have no hope of erecting another daily castle in which to reincorporate it with a XX century postscript!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 27 Oct 1932, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 272

In another letter, Lovecraft described the contents of the time capsule the 15-year-old Annie had secreted as “her tintype, a newspaper page, and a couple of ‘to whom it may concern’ letters” (LMM 311).

Lillian Delora Phillips Clark died on 3 July 1932. Her illness and the attendant costs had put a crunch on the family finances; Lovecraft brought in little money with his writing and revision work, and the residue of the monies inherited from Whipple Phillips & other estates must have been seriously depleted. Lovecraft wrote:

My aunt has always been the family banker, and now that she is down I have charge of all papers & accounts, & can see in stark plainness the utter desperateness of our financial situation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Jun 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 292

For reasons of economy, Howard and Annie would need to find some joint residence. Relatively soon, they found one:

My aunt’s friend—a high-school teacher of German—had long wanted her to move in above her if ever the flat should be vacant. On May 1st it did become vacant, & my aunt was duly informed. We looked it over, found it would be ideal for both, & at once clinched the bargain.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 31 May 1933, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 303

So Annie and Howard moved into 66 College St., which would be Lovecraft’s final home. He was very happy to at last be in a Colonial house, and family furniture was unearthed from storage and the household set up…but not without a snag.

On June 14, before the complete settlement of our new abode, my aunt broke her ankle through a slip on the stairs while descending to answer the doorbell during my absence. Doctors….ambulance to R. I. Hospital…..x-ray…..setting under aether…..plaster cast…..room in Ward K…..prospect of being in bed six weeks & on crutches several more…….& a financial strain utterly ruinous to us at the present juncture! Such is life. Of course there is no danger or actual illness, but the restriction to bed is accursedly unpleasant & productive of backaches. After another week my aunt will probably be brought home with a nurse. She reads, writes notes, & eats fairly well—very well, in fact, today. I call at the hospital each afternoon. Naturally the disaster has kept me overwhelmingly busy—with the house in its unsettled state & everything in the air.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 24 Jun 1933, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 289

She evidently mistook 2 steps (an isolated pair, before the staircase turns for the main descent) for one, & landed with a disastrous thud. For a long time she thought the trouble was only a sprain, so that she simply sat still on the staircase talking with her caller & waiting for the ache to subside. At last, however, the pain caused her to summon a physician “just to be on the safe side”–& he, diagnosing the matter at once, imparted the bad news & turned her over to a specialist. I fancy the patient will be walking on her own feet by Chistmas–though twinges & awkwardness will probably persist much longer.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 5 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge  256

Howard was back to nursing an aunt again, with the concomitant disruption of his own writing and no ability to travel—but what else was there to do? They were all the immediate family that either had left. As before, Lovecraft tracked his aunt’s progressive recovery in his letters:

Her plaster cast came off last Thursday, but the doctor wishes her to remain in bed for a while before attempting locomotion or crutches.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 8 Aug 1933, O Fortunate Floridian! 72

Now that her cast is off, she has trouble about blood rushing to the injured foot when it is lowered from an horizontal position–hence is not yet about on crutches.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 21 Aug 1933, OFF 76

My aunt gave me a birthday present of a week’s emancipation from nursing responsibilities—by getting others to come in afternoons—& I have hastened to utilise my freedom in snatching at least one real trip from the brief & waning summer!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Sep 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 437

My aunt is vastly improved—all around the house on a cane, & occasionally gets downstairs & out in the garden. The nurse went Sept. 13, & I am now much less tied down than I was. We’ve installed an electrical device for opening the front door from upstairs—which is very useful when I’m not available for bell-answering. Just now she is about to attempt a motor ride in a friend’s car—her first large-scale glimpse of the outside world since June 14.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, Sep 1933, OFF 79

I am glad to say that my aunt is now vastly better—out everywhere with a single cane, & all around the house with no cane at all. Since she has assumed charge of domestic matters, the house begins to look infinitely more home-like—curtains hung, more old family furniture brought out of storage, & so on.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Arthur Harris, 24 Dec 1933, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 288

Since my aunt is now wholly on her feet again, & able to be alone in the house, the one doubtful element at the end is finances.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Feb 1934, OFF 106

Annie’s recovered mobility freed Lovecraft to travel, including his extensive trip to Florida in 1934 to stay with the Barlows in DeLand. We have little idea of her personal life, except through Lovecraft’s letters. She read newspapers and clipped articles for him, borrowed books from the library and read them, watched films at the cinema, listened to the radio, and took her meals from the nearby boarding house. When guests traveled to Providence to meet Lovecraft from 1932-1937, she would have met them—including R. H. Barlow, Helen V. Sully, Harry K. Brobst, and Kenneth Sterling. Her travels resumed, including trips to Ogunquit, Maine and Marblehead, Massachusetts.

By the end 1934, aunt and nephew were ensconced in cozy domesticity:

My aunt & I had an exceptionally pleasant Christmas, & I hope the same is true of yourself. We had a tree for the first time in over a quarter of a century. […] We began the day most auspiciously by listening to the British Empire broadcast—which I hope you did not miss. […] I turned down the dollar bill that was tied on top of one of my gifts […] Later in the day came a turkey feast at the boarding house across the back garden (home of the late Sam Perkins), a general unveiling of gifts, & a session of conversation & contemplation by candlelight & tree-light.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Dec 1934, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 285

1935 went well too. Lovecraft made what would be his final trip to Florida. In the fall & winter, Annie and her nephew would attend a series of public speakers at nearby Brown University on a diverse array of subjects, some of which found their way into his letters. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunt while on his travels continue, but lose a degree of detail; perhaps the diary-entries were more important to Lillian, who was housebound for prolonged periods. Perhaps his correspondence had simply grown too unmanageable; increasingly, letters from 1935-1936 include portions copied between multiple correspondents, showing how Lovecraft was working swiftly.

In 1936 illness hit again.

Following my own attack of grippe my aunt came down with an infinitely severer version of the same curst malady, so that since Feby. 17 I have had no time to be aught save a combined nurse, butler, & errand boy. And no daylight in sight—indeed, complications seem likely to prolong the siege, & perhaps to necessitate my aunt’s sojourn at an hospital for a while…thus repeating the chaos of June-July ‘33.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, OFF 320-321

Howard uniformly describes this illness as “grippe,” but Annie Gamwell quickly required hospitalization. Her death certificate notes that her right breast was surgically removed in 1936, suggesting that she was actually suffering from breast cancer and required a mastectomy, and subsequent stay in a convalescent home and nursing. During this time, Lovecraft gained closer contact with some of her aunt’s friends, notably Bertha Rausch, Mayte Sutton, and Marian F. Bonner, who would become correspondents. These women, at least, may have known the truth of Annie’s illness.

My aunt was in excellent spirits, & seemed to be making a fine recovery. She had just had an adequate duck dinner, & was completing the ice cream dessert when I arrived. Of course the whole experience is not a pleasant one—there has been pain (although the etherisation, conducted under modern conditions, was wholly free from unpleasantness & nausea), & there is still discomfort from the constant reclining in a fixed position; but everything is progressing according to schedule, & Dr. Kingman—whom I called up the other day—considers the case very satisfactory.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Marian F. Bonner, 22 Mar 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1011

Let me say that my aunt is doing very well at the hospital—now taking good meals, & sitting up each day a little. Yesterday morning she was wheeled on the sun porch for a glimpse of the park-like grounds. I call on alternate days, but so far she has received no other visitors. She still has, of course, much discomfort—digestive stress, sleeplessness, & the irritation of reclining in one fixed position. The length of her stay is not yet certain—but she likes this hospital so much better than the one where she was in 1933 that she has not the same nervous anxiety to get away. Her present abode is on the same grounds as the other hospital, but is a wholly different building—only remotely connected with the R. I. Hospital proper. It is a select institution—the best hospital in the state—called the Jane Brown Memorial […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 27 Mar 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 327

I believe you last heard from me in early March, when my aunt was about to go to the hospital. She went on the 17th—as it to celebrate the festival of Hibernia’s saint—& was there for three solid weeks. Meanwhile I had to act as her secretary, messenger, telephone-clerk, & what the hell—so that the confusion which I previously described increased to the utter, ultimate breaking-point. […] Well—my aunt left the hospital April 7, & spent two weeks at a convalescent home—returning to 66 a week ago yesterday. She is much better, & takes walks every pleasant day with my assistance; but it may be some time before her health will let her perform all the chores of 66 without coöperation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 29 Apr 1936, OFF 327

On Tuesday, April 7, at 4 p.m., the patient left the gas-house district by motor to complete here convalescence at Dorcus Convalescent Home, 32, Blackstone Blvd. (cor Irving Ave.) (Tel. PL 3485), an extremely prepossessing private retreat whose domestic atmosphere & favourable situation ought to aid greatly in promoting rapid recovery. After a trial of a ground-floor room (which proved too noisy), the patient is now settled in a really delightful second-floor room at the front of the house, with a door leading out upon a screened porch which commands a fine view of the boulevard. The edifice is a relique of the 189’s, but makes up in comfort what it lacks in taste. The patient, though missing the detailed & instantaneous service provided by the hospital, is getting to like it better & better—& indeed finds the cuisine even superior to Aunt Jane Brown’s. When I called yesterday afternoon she seemed in fine shape indeed, & ate her dinner at a table while seated on the edge of the bed. She continues to welcome callers–the best hour being in the morning at any time after 10, & the second-best being in the afternoon betwixt 3 & 4. The mid-day period is devoted to a siesta—a habit she ought to continue after her return to the Garden House.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maran F. Bonner, 9 Apr 1936, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.1019

My aunt continues to improve, but I am about ‘all in’—on the verge of some sort of nervous collapse, & with the worst digestive trouble since the autumn of 1934.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Jun 1936, Letters with Donald & Howard Wandrei 351

Once again, Lovecraft’s letters track his aunt’s recovery…but he had no real ability to travel, and his own health continued to worsen. Due to the fact that they were seeing each other practically every day, there are very few letters for 1936-1937, though he kept up a diary for his aunt for the period of her hospitalization. They had a Christmas tree again for 1936, and one mutual friend wrote:

At Christmas time, I would get his help to “smuggle in” my present to his aunt. I can clearly remember the three of us sitting around their tiny Christmas Tree.
—Marion F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H. P. L.” (1945) in Ave Atque Vale 433

His illness worsened in 1937, which he described to his friends as “the grippe,” though in truth it was cancer in its terminal stages. In his 1937 letters, Lovecraft continues to refer to his aunt:

My aunt has also suffered from a touch of grippe.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Adolphe de Castro, 17 Feb 1937, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 398

About 79 letters, notes, and postcards from H. P. Lovecraft to his aunt Annie Gamwell survive at the John Hay Library and in the Arkham House Transcripts. Only three of these letters were published, in abridged form, in the Selected Letters (Arkham House), a few in Letters from New York (Night Shade Books). 364 letters between Lovecraft and his aunts, all that are known to survive, are published in the two volumes of Letters to Family & Family Friends (2020, Hippocampus Press).

Two letters from Annie to Lovecraft survive: 12 June 1935 and 21 July 1935; in addition to this, Annie has signed a number of joint notes and letters. Two letters is not much by which to judge her side of the correspondence, but the letters seem to reflect a similar attitude toward letter writing as Lovecraft himself expressed in his letters to her: full of details of daily life, interesting encounters, homely minutiae.

I’ll shut up now.
All love & best wishes
Aunt Annie
—Annie Gamwell to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 July 1935

More of Annie’s correspondence survives from after her nephew’s death. As the heir to his estate, she became the focus of interest from August Derleth & Donald Wandrei (who would found Arkham House to publish Lovecraft’s work), R. H. Barlow (who would be his literary executor), and Lovecrat’s myriad correspondents. The positions of aunt and nephew were now reversed, with Annie now having to handle Lovecraft’s correspondence, as he had done for her during her hospitalizations in 1933 and 1936.

I know how much store Mrs. Gamwell set by him, and how much she missed him after his death.
—Marion F. Bonner, “Miscellaneous Impressions of H. P. L.” (1945)

With the death of her own children and now her nephew, the branch of the family descended from Whipple Phillips and Rhoby Place was coming to its end. Annie’s heirs would be cousins, the bits and pieces of family property distributed among them. Annie Emeline Phillips Gamwell died 29 January 1941. She was buried in the family plot at Swan Point Cemetery, with the remains of her children.


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: Lillian Delora Phillips Clark

The children of Whipple and Rhoby Phillips are Lillian D., now wife of Dr. Franklin C. Clark of Providence; Sarah S, mother of the autobiographer; Edwin E.; and Anna, now wife of Mr. Edward Gamwell, Associate Editor of The Boston Budget and Beacon. My mother and Aunt Lillian were both educated at the Wheaton Seminary in Norton, Massachusetts, and are both accomplished landscape painters in oil. My Aunt Lillian also attended the State Normal School, and was for some time a teacher.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Maurice W. Moe, 1 Jan 1915, Letters to Maurice W. Moe 43-44

The story of the correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft and his aunt Lillian Delora Phillips Clark is the story of Lillian herself; for almost everything we know about her, beside some impersonal records and statistics, come from their correspondence, and from Lovecraft’s mentions of his aunt in his letters to others. In many ways, we can only see Lillian through Lovecraft—as he saw her, and presented her to his friends and loved ones.

Lillian Delora Phillips was born on 20 April 1856, the eldest of the five children of Whipple Van Buren Phillips and his wife Robie Alzada Phillips (née Place). She was educated at the Wheaton Seminary (1872-1873) and attended the State Normal School (c.1874-1875), although there is no record that she took a degree. Nineteen years old, intelligent and educated, Lillian apparently began work as a teacher, although records of where and when she was employed are no longer extant. She lived with her family for several through at least 1881. She was likely still living at home in 1889 when her younger sister Sarah Susan Phillips married Winfield Scott Lovecraft, and when her nephew Howard Phillips Lovecraft entered the world. Letters from Lovecraft’s grandfather in 1895 and 1899 both refer to “Lillie,” attesting to her continued presence in, or at least near the household.

All of Lillian’s surviving younger siblings (Emeline Phillips died in childhood) married before her (although strangely, brother Edward married his wife Martha in 1894 and 1903), but in 1902 at age 46 she married Dr. Franklin Chase Clark—and no doubt, finally moved out of the family household, if she hadn’t already. The death of her father Whipple Phillips in 1904 caused the breakup of the household at 454 Angell St. in Providence—Susan and Howard Lovecraft moved to 598 Angell St., and most of the family furniture and assets of Whipple’s estate were broken up among the surviving children. Still, “Aunt Lillian” remained young Howard Lovecraft’s closest relative beside his mother, and no doubt they kept in touch with visits or cards over the next fifteen years, as Howard grew. Her husband, Dr. Clark, was one of the few men of his generation left to stand as a parental figure for Lovecraft. Of these childhood years, Lovecraft would write:

My two aunts presented rather a contrast. The elder was (& still is) a devotee of science & literature. She was a potent influence, I think, in turning my fancy toward the classics, while my old love of chemistry also arise from her remarks on that science. She was (though she has ceased to paint now) an artist of great power. When she married Dr. Clark, she proved the means of introducing me to the most substantial classical element of all! […] My predilection for natural science, fostered by my Aunt Lillian, took form in a love for chemistry.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 16 Nov 1916, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 64, 69

In 1915, Dr. Clark died. The marriage was childless, not surprising given their respective ages. Lillian moved into a series of rented rooms; much of this period (1915-1919) is unclear as to what she was doing, or if she had any occupation in Providence. In 1919, Susie Lovecraft suffered a breakdown and was admitted to Butler Hospital; her sister Annie Gamwell moved into 598 Angell St. with Lovecraft, and Lillian must have been by as well, although 1919-1920 she was working and living as a caregiver or housekeeper at 135 Benefit St., which Lovecraft visited. This house would be the model for “The Shunned House.”

The death of Lovecraft’s mother in 1921 precipitated his travels, first to Boston and then to New York, on amateur affairs and his first letters to Lillian and Annie are from this period. It was during this period when Lovecraft was courting Sonia H. Greene that age and affliction began to tell on Lillian:

My aunt (not the one you saw, but the elder & 598-governing one) became prostrate with grippe the very day after I wrote you—I guess the two shows were two or too much for her—& Fortune depressed the dignity of a Theobaldus to the ignomin of domestick exertion. In fine, I had to serve as a sort of composite nurse & housekeeper, even descending to the depths of preparing food & cleansing & dehydrating china & silver….but let us not think of such demeaning practicalities.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 25 Mar 1923, Letters to James F. Morton 31

As with many cases of “la grippe,” in Lovecraft’s letters regarding his aunts, it isn’t clear if this was influenza or some other illness. The 67-year-old aunt was the principal recipient of Howard’s surviving letters to his aunts, describing in detail his first and subsequent visits to New York…and no doubt tremendously surprised in early 1924 when her nephew announced via letter his marriage to Sonia H. Greene, and consequent move to New York City. Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts quickly assume a diary-like character, interrupted only when one or the other of the aunts was actually down there visiting Howard, and hence there was no need to write.

I startled her considerably when I told her we had a detailed account of their life together in HPL’s letters to Mrs. Clark.
—August Derleth to R. H. Barlow, 23 Oct 1947, MSS. Wisconsin Historical Society

Howard and Sonia separated in 1926, and Howard returned to Providence. The timing would prove to be fortunate; Lillian’s health had begun to decline:

On May 16 my elder aunt—Mrs. Clark—got tooken with a spasm of intercostal neuralgia; & although at no time in any danger, was confined absolutely to her bed until a day or two ago. At first, before a good nurse could be obtain’d, I had to stay over at her place day & night; going home only to collect my mail; but eventually we got a competent daughter of Hygeia—a h’elderly Cockney lydy nymed Missus ‘Arrrison, oo’s ‘ad mooch h’experience a-treatin of sech cyses—so that all I have to do now is bring in meals, run grocery & pharmacy errands, & stick around for three hours in the h’arfternoon, w’en Mrs. ‘Arrison tykes ‘er h’outin’. A coupla days ago my aunt sat up for the first time, & yesterday she staged a pedestrian experiment which might be called quite successful if you don’t judge it by your Pat. Ramblers. Within a month I hope she will be able to move over here.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 10 Jun 1926, Letters to James F. Morton 108

Howard and Lillian would combine households at 10 Barnes St. from 1926 through 1932. Lovecraft’s letters to others are unspecific about Lillian’s illness; sometimes attributing them to intercostal neuralgia, lumbago, and digestive troubles, but they obviously occasioned considerable pain, limited movement, and during the worst spells required constant nursing. Some of Lovecraft’s letters to Elizabeth Toldridge give the flavor of this period and his accounts of it:

My aunt had another acute spell lately, & is helped by a nurse each day. She has, however, just secured a new physician who is to administer some ray treatments about which he is highly optimistic.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 30 Aug 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 155

My aunt seems much better than in July—due largely to a new physician who gives ultra-violet ray treatments. A nurse, however, is still necessary.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, late Aug/Sep 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 157

My aunt’s health is decidedly better, & she no longer requires the nurse. The coming of furnace heat & its dryness is a good thing for her, I think.
—H. P. Lovecraft
to Elizabeth Toldridge, 24 Oct 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 163

My aunt, I am glad to say, seems to continue her improvement; & I hope to be able to drag her out to a good Thanksgiving dinner at the nearest restaurant.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 23 Nov 1930, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 167

My aunt shews no signs of any recurrence of the acute trouble of last summer, though of course she cannot undergo much exertion, or make trips outside except on special occasions.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 25 Jan 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 172

My elder aunt has been unusually well—for her—this summer, so that I shall try to get her outdoors more upon my return home.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 19 Jul 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 186

My aunt is better again—coming down stairs occasionally.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 31 Oct 1931, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 192

I succeeded in getting my aunt out again to a Christmas dinner, & she seems none the worse for it. Hope her confidence in her travelling ability is now so much restored that she will attempt occasional excursions without the excuse of a holiday.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 16 Jan 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 197

My aunt’s health continues on a reasonably encouraging though scarcely active level.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 26 Feb 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 207

My aunt, though not going outdoors, has had no relapses of acute trouble during the winter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 20 Apr 1932, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 210

In periods when Lillian was well, or well enough, Howard traveled as his means allowed—notably his 1931 trip to Florida, where his letters and postcards to his “elder aunt” overflow with description, detail, and matters of historical interest. Many of these letters are signed something along the lines of: “My dear daughter Lillian”—a joke on Lovecraft’s pretense at being the “Old Gent”—and signed something along the lines of “Yr aff: nephew & obt Servt” (“Your affectionate nephew & obedient servant”).

Lillian was apparently well enough in the early summer of 1932 that Lovecraft made another trip down South…but he had to hurry home.

When I reached here at seven-thirty p.m. Friday my aunt was in a painless semi-coma, & it is doubtful whether she recognised me. Doctor & nurse, however, were leaving nothing undone; & Mrs. Gamwell was coöperating valiantly. General weakening & collapse of the whole organic system, caused by the long strain of arthritic pain & precipitated by an unprecedentedly severe attack, had brought about a sinking from which the doctor gave no hope of recovery. Saturday brought no change, save a period of difficult breathing in the morning which Dr. Brown interpreted as a bad sign—predicting ultimate disaster within twenty-four hours. Sunday the melancholy prediction was fulfilled, & 1932 was irrevocably entered as a black year for this household. The end was so peaceful & unconscious that I could not believe a change had occurred when the nurse declared it final.

Services will be held tomorrow at the Knowles Funeral Chapel on the ancient hill not far from here—& close to where my aunt & Dr. Clark lived in & around 1910. Although Mrs. Clark had no more use for orthodox cant & childish immortality myths than I, the services will be conducted in the ancient Church of England tradition by the Rev. Alfred Johnson, a venerable friend of both Phillips & Clark families who also officiated for my mother in 1921. My aunt would have preferred him, since the poetry of the Anglican ritual is a thing of eternal beauty aside from its hollow meaning, whereas the jargon of the Baptists (her immediate ancestral tradition) & other Evangelicals contains only the hollowness without the beauty. She had no patience, intellectually, with any sects save the Anglican and Unitarian; though she was still technically on the rolls of the old first Baptist Church.

Internment will be in the Clark lot at Swan Point Cemetery—the same cemetery which contains the Phillips lot where I shall be interred. I waived rights in the Lovecraft lot at Woodlawn (N.Y.) a decade ago, since I wish to be permanently merged with Old Providence.

Mrs. Gamwell will appreciate your expressions of sympathy. The present event is, despite its inevitability, a blow of the first magnitude to both survivors—especially to me, since my aunt was the real animating spirit & homemaking nucleus of 10 Barnes. The suddenness of the event is both bewildering and merciful—the latter because we cannot yet realise, subjectively, that it has actually occurred at all. It would, for example, seem incredibly unnatural to disturb the pillows now arranged for my aunt in the rocker beside my centre-table—her accustomed reading-place each evening. The earlier newspapers piled up during my absence contain interesting annotations in her hand.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 5 Jul 1932, Letters to James F. Morton 299-300

The death of Lillian led to a major shakeup in Lovecraft’s life; he had been surviving on the residue of his and his mother’s inheritance from the estate of Whipple Phillips, as commonly doled out by his aunts. Now with Lillian’s death, the family’s finances were burdened by final medical and funeral costs, and it became necessary for them to combine households—they moved in together to 66 College Street. A large painting of the Rocks at Narragansett Pier by Lillian D. Clark was placed above the stairway.

My dear Aunt Lillian:

In replying to your recent & highly appreciated epistles, let me first thank you for sending the suit & minor accessories.
— H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 29 Sep 1922, Letters to Family & Family Friends 75

There must have been letters from Aunt Lillian to her nephew, certainly during the 1924-1926 period in New York, Lovecraft mentions receiving small stipends of money and communications from his aunts. Yet none of them survive. We have only Howard’s side of the correspondence, as first he kept in touch with his elder aunt, and then he took care of her through her painful, semi-invalid days…but of the inner self of Lillian D. Clark, we can only hazard a guess. Having no children of her own, Howard must have been the closest thing to a son to her, and their relationship was clearly precious to them both, and his letters from afar were no doubt a lifeline during the “semi-invalid” period when Lillian was confined to her bed or indoors.

His letters to her show that Lovecraft was more open to exclamations on race to letters to his aunt than he might have been to others; if Lillian, who was barely nine when the American Civil War ended, had her own prejudices and shared them with her nephew, it would not be a great surprise. It is more difficult to read the things that are not in Lovecraft’s letters, such as Sonia’s suggestion in The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft that the aunts were against the marriage. Certainly, when the time came to fetch Lovecraft back to Providence in 1926, it was Lillian that went down to New York to help arrange the details of the move…but there was never a word of reproach about this in Howard’s letters to or about his aunt.

About 285 letters, postcards, and notes to Lillian Clark from Lovecraft are known to survive at the John Hay Library in Providence, and many are transcribed in part in the Arkham House Transcripts. 27 of these letters had been previously published in abridged form in the first three volumes of the Selected Letters (Arkham House), and of the 76 letters in Letters from New York (Night Shade Books), 69 are to Lillian. 364 letters between Lovecraft and his aunts, all that are known to survive, are published in the two volumes of Letters to Family & Family Friends (2020, Hippocampus Press).


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: Elizabeth Toldridge

Dear Judge Lovecraft,

So pleased to have your wonderful letter today, which will have to be pondered over more than ours! Am hastening to send this out, closed cuttings, for fear they will become untimely, although they are not very astonishing, I do fear me! Am frankly delighted you liked some of my last ones sent—it makes me very proud and happy […]

I am, faithfully yours,

E. Toldridge
4 June 1935, MSS. John Hay Library

In 1924, H. P. Lovecraft—who at this point was well-known in amateur journalism circles for his poetry and poetry criticism—was invited to be a judge for a poetry contest held by the League of American Penwomen. One of the participants was Elizabeth Augusta Toldridge (1861-1940), a graduate of the Maryland State Normal School (now Townson University) who had worked as a clerk at the U.S. Treasury, and the author of two collections of poetry: The Soul of Love (1910) and Mother’s Love Songs (1911). She had also published a fair amount of poetry in newspapers, sometimes under the name of her father Barnet Toldridge.

By 1928, Toldridge was 67 years old, and apparently living alone in the Farragut building in Washington, D.C. There is no evidence she ever married or had children, and seemed to live alone. Toldridge was presumably retired from her work as a clerk, and apparently had recently suffered an accident of unknown severity; Lovecraft later described her as “crippled and shut in,” although newspaper accounts suggest she was still relatively active in the American Poetry Circle in D.C.

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Evening Star, 9 June 1929
Lovecraft’s library included a copy of American Poetry Circle Anthology (New York; Leacy N. Green-Leach, 1929; LL 25), inscribed “to Judge H. P. Lovecraft” from Toldridge. 

Lovecraft’s first letter to Elizabeth Toldridge is dated 16 August 1928; he was answering her inquiry about the long-ago poetry competition. What followed was a correspondence that would last the rest of Lovecraft’s life; 103 letters survive from 1928 to 1937 representing Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence which Toldridge had dutifully kept. Her own letters, kept by Lovecraft, amount to only five plus some miscellaneous cards, preserved among his papers at the John Hay Library. So, as with many of Lovecraft’s other women penpals, most of what we know about their correspondence comes from his letters…and what he mentioned of her in letters to others.

Just before leaving town I shall have to telephone the good old lady amateur poet Miss Toldridge, who (though learned & interesting in letters) is probably a bore, but who would naturally be offended if she heard of my passing through without a word on the wire.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 6 May 1929, Letters to Family & Family Friends 2.792-793

Upon my return I gave my duty telephone call to the old lady—Miss Toldridge—& she cordially insisted that I pay at least a brief call in person. She is a somewhat stately & intelligent gentlewoman living amidst family portraits & reliques in a pleasant apartment-house in Farragut Park. After a short call—less boresome than I had anticipated—I returned to my hotel & spent the later evening reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 7 May 1929, LFF 2.795

Over the next eight years and change, Lovecraft and Toldridge would discuss poetry, writing, ancient history and anthropology, and modern politics. On his trips to the American South, Lovecraft dutifully sent back travelogues and postcards, and Toldridge followed the careers of Lovecraft and his contemporaries in the pulps. A particular aspect of their correspondence was Toldridge’s tendency to send Lovecraft cuttings from newspapers on subjects she thought he would be interested in—anthropology, literature, the British royal family, etc.—which would often serve as meat for Lovecraft’s next dutiful letter. It is from these remarks that we get some of Lovecraft’s most interesting comments on contemporary anthropology during the 1930s…and perhaps they gave him ideas as well.

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This cutting, for example, was sent with Toldridge’s letters of 1 July 1935, MSS John Hay Library. While it’s probably a bit much to say this could have been part of the inspiration for “An Heir to the Mesozoic” (1938) by Hazel Heald, if Lovecraft did have any hand in that work, maybe Toldridge’s clipping proved an inspiration…or perhaps not; there is too little evidence to say anything definite.

What we can say is that Lovecraft continued to keep in touch—and while Toldridge continued to address her letters to “Judge Lovecraft,” he began to affectionately refer to her (at least in his letters to others) as “Aunt Lizzie” or “Aunt Liz.” In 1934 when traveling through Washington, D.C. he stopped by to see her again, and encouraged his young friend R. H. Barlow to do likewise:

By the way—try to get time to call on that good old lady who addresses me as “Judge”—the poetess Miss Elizabeth Toldridge, The Farragut, Farragut Sq. (Telephone District 5870) She is crippled & shut in, & welcomes any pleasant breath from the outside. She’s heard all about you, & hopes to see you. You’ll find her really very cultivated  interesting underneath a veneer of Victorian mannerisms. A kindly & admirable soul, all told.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Sep 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 174-175

Hope you’ll look up Miss Toldridge before long—in the Farragut apartment house at Farragut Square. The poor old soul will probably have to move soon, though she’s lived there 32 years; since the owners want to transform the edifice into a medical building.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 26 Oct 1934, OFF 186

Glad you’ve called on good old Miss Toldridge, & hope he moving will be as easy as possible. It was really a crime to dislodge the amiable old soul from her shelter of 30 years—but I trust she’ll find the La Salle not less comfortable after a while.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Dec 1934, OFF 193

Glad you took nice old Miss Toldridge to see “Don Quixote”—she seems to get around very little nowadays, with lameness & natural timidity acting in conjunction.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, OFF 275

In 1934, Barlow and Lovecraft perpetrated a hoax, anonymously mailing out copies of “The Battle That Ended The Century” to their friends—which were mailed from Washington, D.C. Toldridge was one of Lovecraft’s few acquaintances in the city at the time, but there is no record of her being the D.C. end of the hoax in their extant correspondence. More likely it was one of Barlow’s friends in the area who mailed off the bit of fun…and the association of Barlow, Lovecraft, & Toldridge had other benefits. Toldridge submitted some of her poetry to Barlow for use in his amateur journals The Dragon-Fly and Leaves, where her poem “H. P. Lovecraft” (1937) was eventually published. When Lovecraft visited her in D.C. in 1935, they discussed the possibility of Barlow publishing a collection of her poetry:

Well—I called on Aunt Liz, but she doesn’t seem to want to name the definite contents of any book yet. Says she wants to write some more & “better” poems for it! Didn’t get a chance to talk amateurdom—-another old lady was there most of the time discussing this & that. You’ll be sorry to hear that Lady Macdonald died last month. Her daughter sent Miss T. the sand news. Aunt Liz sent you all sorts of regards, & said she thought you were the nicest boy she had ever encountered. She marvels at the maturity of your mind.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 1 Sep 1935, OFF 289

A manuscript for a collection of her poetry titled Winnings was left behind after her death.

Periodic references to Toldridge appear in Lovecraft’s letters to Barlow, and Barlow in Lovecraft’s letters to Toldridge, as they all three appear to have kept in touch from in 1935-1937. Lovecraft’s letters appear to show a growing awareness of her own mortality, as age and health issues continue to be referenced, and in late 1936 Lovecraft received an unexpected gift:

Yesterday I received from Aunt Lizzie that heirloom ring which she’s talked so much about. I had tried my best to stop her sending it—she ought to snap out of that “not long for this world” attitude. Hope you drop her occasional cheering letters. I try to do so.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Dec 1936, OFF 384

By the time you have the letter in which I acknowledge—most gratefully & appreciatively—the delightful & memory-surrounded ring which arrived on Thursday. It is pleasant indeed to know its history, & the source of that attractive [“]planetary system” of diamonds. Let me repeat my thanks for this honour of custodianship—& my assurances that the heirloom is at your complete disposal whenever you wish to have it with you again. I am sure that the kinsfolk in the mother land will appreciate most profoundly the other reliques sent to them—although in this case also you really ought to have retained the article for your own enjoyment. No apologies are necessary for the ‘un-shined’ state of the ring—indeed, I always prefer a certain appearance of mellowness in any object to utter, sapolio-suggesting spic-&-span-ness. So once more let me attest my sincerest appreciation & gratitude!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 21 Dec 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 349

Elizabeth Toldridge sticks out as a bit of an oddity among Lovecraft’s correspondents: she doesn’t appear to have had any direct relationship with amateur journalism until relatively late in life, when Lovecraft got her into the National Amateur Press Association, nor was she a fellow pulpster, a fan, family, or a family friend. Little to no mention of her is made in Lovecraft’s letters to anyone except Barlow and his aunts.

Yet she wrote to him in 1928; Lovecraft was too much of a gentleman not to answer. So she kept writing, and he kept answering…and so grew their correspondence and friendship over a period of years. Whether he was humoring her because of her age, or whether she was really lonely and desperate for contact is impossible to say at this juncture, but as with many folks, Lovecraft’s initial assessment became much more positive once he had a chance to meet and talk with her face to face. Their correspondence on poetry certainly appears to have helped Lovecraft away from his strict adherence to meter (he once proclaimed himself a “metrical mechanic”) to the more evocative verse of his “Fungi from Yuggoth.”

Lovecraft’s last letter to Toldridge is dated 7 January 1937. He was glad to hear that the copy of The Shadow over Innsmouth, published by Visionary Press, had arrived to her safely. He included a poetic tribute to his friend Clark Ashton Smith, “To Klarkash-Ton, Wizard of Averoigne”—and he signed off simply:

All good wishes

Yrs most sincerely,

H P Lovecraft

Of the one thousand abridged letters in the Selected Letters, 84 were selected from Lovecraft’s letters to Elizabeth Toldridge; in part, no doubt, to the breadth of the subject matter of their correspondence. The full 103 letters from Lovecraft to Toldridge were published in Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw in 2014. The few surviving letters and cards from Toldridge to Lovecraft, along with many poetry manuscripts she sent, may be read online for free at the John Hay Library—although the faint pencil strokes and the yellowing from the acidic newsprint cuttings laid in with the letters make them difficult to read.


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

“R. H. B.” (1978) by Andreas and Rivière

 

À Suivre (“To Be Continued”, 1978-1997) was one of the major Franco-Belgian comic magazines of the period, publishing such great European comics creators as Alexandro Jodorowsky, Milo Manara, Mœbius (Jean Giraud), François Schuiten, and Guido Crepax, a contemporary of magazines like Métal hurlant and Pilote, focusing on comics for a more mature audience.

“R. H. B,” by Andreas (Andreas Martens) and Rivière (François Rivière) was published in À Suivre 6-7, the July-August double issue for 1978. The title stands for Robert Hayward Barlow, friend and literary executor to H. P. Lovecraft. This coincides with the increased enthusiasm for Lovecraft in France, particularly the publication of LETTRES, 1 (1914-1926), which was published May 1978—a translation of Lovecraft’s letters, taken from volume I and part of volume II of Arkham House’s five-volume Selected Letters series. By comparison, Métal hurlant‘s Lovecraft special issue was published in September 1978.

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H. P. Lovecraft received a fan letter from a 13-year-old R. H. Barlow in June 1931; Lovecraft was then 41 years old, and the two continued corresponding for six years, until Lovecraft’s death in 1937. The two met in May 1934, when Lovecraft took a trip down to Barlow’s family home in DeLand, Florida, a visit which lasted seven weeks; they met again briefly in New York during the winter of 1934-1935, where Lovecraft was in the habit of meeting friends for New Years Eve, and Lovecraft repeated his trip to visit the Barlows in Florida in 1935, where he spent ten weeks with his hosts, but begged off the invitation to stay all summer. Their next visit was when Barlow came to visit Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island, 28 July 1936, when the teenager stayed more than a month at the boarding house behind Lovecraft’s residence. It was the last time the two would meet; Lovecraft would die of cancer on 15 March 1937. Lovecraft’s “Instructions in Case of Decease,” dating from 1936, named Barlow his literary executor…and it is through Barlow’s efforts that many of Lovecraft’s papers, unpublished stories, and letters were preserved at the John Hay Library.

The comic proper is presaged by an introduction by editor Marc Voline:

suiver-2

At the time the Ides et Autres (“Ides and Others”) fanzine published an unpublished poem by Lovecraft (3), (A Suivre) presents a comic strip approach of the great writer universe. “Biography of Robert H. Barlow and his relationship with HP Lovecraft” is the first of a five-part series, collected under the title Mythographies. Andreas and Rivière designed this as a kind of oblique exploration, referential and ironic, of sometimes poorly known literary universe. As for Lovecraft the famous “hermit of Providence,” we wanted—they say—to prove that the legend that he would, during his life, never leaves the perimeter of New England was all simply false. From the thick and rather indigestible biography of the author of La malediction d’Ansmouth (“The Shadow over Innsmouth”) written by Lyon Sprague de Camp, we briefly identify with the existence of an endearing and terribly pathetic “fan” most assiduous without doubt Lovecraft. Robert Barlow well deserved homage …

Marc Voline

Most of the material in the comic would come from L. Sprague de Camp’s H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975); this would not be available in French until 1987 when Richard D. Nolane translated it as H. P. Lovecraft ; le Roman de sa Vie, so the creators of “R. H. B.” were working through some linguistic hurdles and miscommunications. As Lettres 1 doesn’t have any actual letters from Barlow, essentially all of the material for “R. H. B.” was drawn directly from de Camp’s book, with many phrases translated directly from the English edition.

suiver-4

Small issues of translation aside, this is a starkly beautiful comic, with fantastic linework by Andreas, who obviously referenced what photos of Lovecraft were available. Translation of the French above:

Robert’s is not a happy family. There are frequent conflicts between him and his father, who suffers from depression (he is paranoid and continually fears the coming of improbable enemies.) Bernice, the wife of the colonel, spoiled the only son and quarreled with his father.

In spring 1934, Robert makes a profit of the absence of his father to invite Lovecraft to De Land. In April this year, HPL makes this journey. Lovecraft, in contact with the hot climate of Florida, is in an unusual state. He presents himself to Barlow with hatless and coatless.

His first stay in the house of his admirer is as a dream thanks to Bobby, he will see for the first and last time in his life a river full of alligators, at Silver Springs!

By comparison, this is how de Camp described this encounter:

The family home was at De Land, Florida, seventeen miles inland from Daytona Beach. Barlow’s father, Everett D. Barlow, was a retired U. S. Army lieutenant colonel and something of a mental case. Subject to moods of intense depression, he suffered from delusions of having to defend his home against the attacks of a mysterious Them. He was cracked on religion and on sex.

Robert Barlow got on badly with his father. At this time, he told his friends that he hated the colonel; although later, after his parents had been divorced, he carried on a friendly correspondence with him. Robert Barlow’s mother, Bernice Barlow, spoiled and pampered her son (somewhat as Lovecraft’s mother had done with him) and quarreled with her husband over the boy’s upbringing.

In the spring of 1934, Barlow and his mother were at De Land while the father, in the North, recuperated with relatives from one of his attacks. In January, Robert Barlow began urging Lovecraft to come for a visit to Florida. By April, Lovecraft had planned the trip. […] At the Barlows’, the heat stimulated Lovecraft. In high spirits he went hatless and coatless and boasted of the tan he was working up. His one disappointment was in not being able to go on to Havana. He was consoled by a trip with the Barlows to Silver Springs. There he had his first view of a jungle-shaded tropical river and even glimpsed wild alligators.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography 393-394

There are some errors in de Camp’s portrayal, which were repeated by Rivière. Lt. Col. Everett D. Barlow had seen action during World War I, and may have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder; Lovecraft was aware of the elder Barlow’s mental illness and was notably more sympathetic than de Camp:

I surely am sorry that your father remains under the weather psychologically. These depressed states may be troublesome to others, & may seem exasperating when coupled with good physical health, yet they are really every inch as painful & unavoidable as any other form of illness. The victim can’t help himself any more than a victim of indigestion or cardiac trouble can. The more we know of psychology, the less distinction we are able to make betwixt the functional disorders known as “mental” and “physical.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 April 1934, O Fortunate Floridian! 125

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The narrative is, like most biographies, not some action-and-romance-packed account. Artist and writer manage to convey a sense time passing with the arrangement of the panels, particularly an extended shot of a kitten falling through perfect blackness that stretches out over several pages. While Lovecraft is the principal focus of the story because of the narrative, he dies in 1937…and Barlow’s story goes on, to his university education in Kansas, California, and then Mexico.

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He unfortunately suffers the cruel intolerance due to his particular sexuality, at present known to all. It is the subject of an odious blackmail as a result of links with a Mexican youth. On 2 January 1951, it takes a large amount of sedatives and falls asleep forever. He is 33 years of age.

There are large parts of Barlow’s life that are not included in this brief but poignant bio-comic, because de Camp was more focused on those parts of Barlow’s life that concerned Lovecraft. We don’t read much about his career as a poet or writer of fiction; the issue of his sexuality and how de Camp came to publicize it was touched on in “The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, and here we see an example of how information spreads.

Notably absent from “R. H. B.” is an accurate depiction of R. H. Barlow himself. De Camp didn’t include any photographs in his biography for Andreas to base his depictions on, and few photos of Barlow at that point had been published.

1935-E

c. 1935

Left to right: H. P. Lovecraft, R. H. Barlow, Bernice Barlow, unknown cat, Wayne Barlow

“R. H. B.” stands as an artistic achievement, and one of (if not the first) graphic adaptations of Lovecraft’s life to feature R. H. Barlow, who did so much to preserve his legacy. Others appear in Alan Moore & Jacen Burrow’s graphic novel Providence (2015-2017); Henrik Möller & Lars Krantz’s Vägan Till NecronomiconCreation of the Necronomicon (2017); Sam Gafford & Jason Eckhardt’s Some Notes on a Nonentity (2017); and especially in Alex Nikolavitch, Gervasio, Carlos Aón, & Lara Lee’s H. P. Lovecraft: He Who Wrote in the Darkness: A Graphic Novel (2018), which showcases Lovecraft’s first encounter with Barlow in 1934…and all of these showcase how Barlow’s story has assumed its own mythical proportion, entwined with Lovecraft’s own.

While it was not uncommon for works in À Suivre to be reprinted, other than the publication in À Suivre, the only other publication of “R. H. B.”  that I have been able to confirm is in The Cosmical Horror of H. P. Lovecraft: A Pictorial Anthology (1991), a tri-lingual guide to Lovecraft comics published up to that point, which reproduces six of the eight pages of “R. H. B.” and Révélations posthumes (1980), a collection of Rivière and Andreas’ biographical comics from À Suivre.


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: Anne Tillery Renshaw

Having finally broken away from Dorchester & attained Copley Square, I at last met in person the celebrated leader of United affairs whom I have known in letters for seven years—Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw of Rocky Mount, N.C., & Washington, D.C. In aspect stout & homely, she is in conversation pleasant, cultivated, & intelligent; with all the force of mind & speech becoming a philosopher, poet, & professor of English, drama, & public speaking. […] At the School of Expression the only amateurs were Mrs. Renshaw & her travelling companion Miss Crist—a colourless young woman who acts as her secretary, typist, & general caretaker; reminding her when she leaves her handbag behind or fails to put on her hat—for Mrs. R. has all the absent-mindedness of genius. […] The conversation consisted almost exclusively of philosophical argument, in which Mrs. R. has all the facility & urbanity of James F. Morton Jr. […] Mrs. McMullen played & sang her “Bumble Fairy”, & Mrs. Renshaw sang two songs (of which she wrote the words) in an excellent controlato, with Miss Crist as accompanist. […] Mrs. Renshaw, who had evidently acquired some of that flattering tendency which is inherent in the air of country villages like Boston, insisted that I ought to write a textbook on English—offering to see to its publication & introduce it in classes at Research University, where she is not head of the English Department. This rather reminded me of the high-flown pipe-dreams of Alnaschar—but another of her commercial suggestions was really practical so far as appearances go. This latter was a plan for me to correct & criticise by mail a number of English themes each week—the exercises of Mrs. R’s classes at the University. Such a procedure would, if the price were sufficiently high, be rather less horrible than Bush work—but there was no time that evening to discuss details. Plans with financial features usually fall through, so I am not yet planning what make of automobile I shall purchase with the fortune gained by text book authorship & associate professorship!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie Gamwell, 19 Aug 1921, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.37-40

In 1914, Anne Vyne Tillery and H. P. Lovecraft first encountered each other in the pages of amateur journalism. They were of an age; Tillery was born in 1899, and Lovecraft in 1890, and had both been recruited to the United Amateur Press Association, the smaller and younger of the two nationwide amateur journalism organizations in existence at the time, and from the first Lovecraft wrote admiringly of her poetry:

“A Garden of Silence and Roses” introduces to the firmament of amateur journalism a new star, in the person of Miss Annie Vyne Tillery, author of professionally published books and poems. Miss Tillery’s style is at once deep and delicate, pervaded throughout with a poetic fervour seldom observed in products of the youthful pen.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 2 (Nov 1914), CE 1.14

“The Dirge of the Great Atlantic”, by Anne Vyne Tillery Renshaw, is a grim and moving bit of verse, cast in the same primitively stirring metre which this author used in her professionally published poem, “The Chant of Iron”. Mrs. Renshaw possesses an enviable power to reach the emotions through the medium of the written word.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 3 (Jan 1915), CE 1.20

Anne Tillery was educated at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Va., attended school in Baltimore and Dr. Curry’s Professional School (presumably Curry School of Expression, now Curry College). She had published a collection of verse, Moods, Mystical and Otherwise (1914), and was actively engaged as a writer and educator specializing in public speaking (then called “expression”) and English.

On 10 December 1914, Anne married Joseph Wilroy Renshaw, a lawyer, and became Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw. Her husband was either already involved in amateur journalism or became involved in it soon after, because in 1915 they launched their joint amateur journal Ole’ Miss (Anne having been raised in Mississippi, and both she and her husband were Southerners.) Lovecraft wrote of the new journal:

Ole’ Miss for March, edited by Mr. and Mrs. J. W. Renshaw, easily falls into the very front rank of the season’s amateur journals. In this number Mr. Joseph W. Renshaw makes his initial appearance before the members of the United, producing a very favourable impression with his pure, attractive prose. The introduction, credited in another column to Mr. Renshaw, is of graceful and pleasing character, recalling the elusively beautiful atmosphere of the Old South which is too soon passing away.
—H. P. Lovecraft “Department of Public Criticism” United Amateur 14, no. 5 (May 1915), CE 1.40

Both Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw quickly began to rise in the ranks of the United; when Lovecraft was elected first vice president in 1915, Renshaw was elected second vice president, and the two collaborated on efforts to recruit new members to the cause of amateur journalism. He also served as assistant editor to Renshaw in the amateur journal Credential, which was aimed at new members (the first piece published by a new member was referred to as their “credential.”)

Despite being perhaps Lovecraft’s oldest and longest-lasting woman correspondent who was not a member of his family, the surviving letters between Lovecraft and Mrs. Renshaw are few. However, we know they must have had a fairly robust correspondence for the first few years of their acquaintance, because aside from amateur affairs  Lovecraft had joined with Renshaw and her friend Mrs. J. G. Smith in the Symphony Literary Service, a revision service where Lovecraft handled verse. It isn’t clear how long this service lasted, but it seems to have been Lovecraft’s foot in the door to freelance revision work and ghostwriting, which would become one of his major sources of income in life. The first few letters we have from Lovecraft and Renshaw date to the 1918 period, a mix of amateur affairs, poetical disputes (Lovecraft disliked free verse, while Renshaw was an advocate for free expression), and current affairs.

Lovecraft supported Renshaw during her successful candidacy in 1919 as Official Editor of the United, and she seems to have been otherwise keeping busy in teaching and publishing:

Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, with characteristic energy, has transferred her interests from State College, Pa., to Washington, D.C. During the autumn she was circulation manager of The Suffragist, a large illustrated monthly, whose subscription department she practically revitalised with her efficient management. She has now accepted a chair at Research University, becoming head of the English Department with the title of Professor. Mrs. Renshaw receives the sympathy of the Association upon the death of Mr. Renshaw in November, and upon the illness of her mother at the same time.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “News Notes” United Amateur 20, No. 2 (Nov 1920), CE 1.265

J. W. Renshaw died in November 1920, probably of pneumonia. We know little of their marriage; they had no children, and Mrs. Renshaw would never remarry. After his death, she was located primarily in Washington, D.C.; she met Lovecraft for the first time in 1921 in Boston. The suggestion she made that Lovecraft revise student work was apparently acted upon, because sometime later Lovecraft wrote:

Amateur journalism’s connexion with Penn State (circa 1919-22, if memory serves aright) was established through one of our members—a Mrs. Anne Tillery Renshaw, now head of a school of elocution in Washington—who went there as an associate professor. She organised her classes into a literary club connected with the United Amateur Press Association, hence we of the Association handled a good deal of their work & assisted them to some extent in a critical way. [Fred Lewis] Pattee was there at the time, & Mrs. Renshaw sometimes spoke of him—indeed, she sent me a copy of his weird novel, “The House of the Black Ring.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Feb 1935, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 258

Lovecraft and Renshaw met again in 1925 when he came as a tourist to Washington, where she drove him about on a sightseeing tour:

[…] our attention was distracted by a hail from the road, where was fast approaching the Renshaw car, with its owner, Sechrist, and a prepossessing gentlewoman of early middle age as occupants. Mrs. R. had, it seems, arriv’d at the Monument immediately after our departure; and having pickt up Sechrist, follow’d us along the course we had told him we wou’d take. With the years this lady hath become a person of much importance in Washington, being now a select teach of dramatic and oratorical method, and prominent in female political circles. (Republican) She is, however, wholly unspoilt; and shew’d extreme kindness in absenting herself from most of her guests and spending the whole day in the guidance of our party, despite the protests we mixt with our profound thanks. […] The car, being small, seated just the five persons present: Mrs. R. (Driving) and Miss D. in font, and myself, Sechrist, and Kirk (reading left to right) on the rear seat). […] There, in the mellow glow of an afternoon no longer young, Mrs. Renshaw deposited Kirk, Christ, and me upon the pavement for a pedestrian finale; herself driving off toward her ome with Miss Dashiel, accompany’d by the most profound and sincere gratitude of the voyagers. We apologised for our inability to accompany her and meet her other guests, as she had wished; but I regret that I have so far fail’d—amidst the rush of the past week—to write her and Sechrist those expressions of thanks and pleasure which urbanity demands.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian Clark, 21 Apr 1925, Letters to Family & Family Friends 1.274-275, 286

We hear little of the Renshaw/Lovecraft correspondence over the next few years; both of them drifted away from the central role they had held in amateur affairs, and Mrs. Renshaw was herself busy with teaching and running her own school in Washington, D.C., where public speaking and oratory were key skills for politicians. It is possible that there were gaps in their correspondence, which might account for why so few letters survive; or that many of them simply concerned business matters which neither considered worth preserving; Lovecraft used the backs of some letters for writing drafts of his stories.

Still, she must have continued to push at least occasional revision work Lovecraft’s way:

[…] our old-time fellow-amateur Mrs. Renshaw has reappear’d on the horizon with a lot of overflow theme papers from her school to be criticis’d and graded. All this means cash for coach-drivers, of course—but it also means workand nothing repels and discourages me more than the latter.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, 14 Mar 1930, Selected Letters 3.130

While revision didn’t pay much, the amounts that Lovecraft did receive no doubt helped in part to fund his excursions to Florida, Louisiana, and Quebec.

It is hard to say at this point what exactly the relationship was between Anne Tillery Renshaw and H. P. Lovecraft. They were friends, certainly, but they do not appear to have had the sort of mentor-mentee relationship that Lovecraft had with some of the younger women writers, professional or amateur, that he would get to know. There is little doubt that Lovecraft saw Renshaw as a peer, and if they did not agree on everything, he seems to have respected her intelligence and the force of her arguments. Unfortunately, it is difficult to say what common ground they might have shared being writing & poetry in general, as Renshaw does not seem to have had any particular interest in weird fiction.

The commercial side of their dealings is harder to pin down, although it would become the focus of their final and most substantial surviving communications. Anne Tillery Renshaw was at this point dean of the Renshaw School of Speech, whose curriculum was based on the Curry Method (a system of public speaking that included a combination of technical exercises and encouragement to express real emotion and natural gestures), and she availed on Lovecraft to help write a textbook for a new course—much as she had proposed some fifteen years earlier, when they first met in Boston.

Lovecraft was already busy with other jobs in 1936, but agreed to take the work on—he needed the money. 

I now made an attempt to go on with the one revision job which I have not yet returned—in the hope that I might be able to perform at least part of it & receive remuneration therefor. Results remain doubtful, since the more original parts will need leisure & concentration. It is a text-book on English usage by Mrs. Renshaw—& most of my time today was spent in straightening out historical & mythological errors in the section where certain familiar allusions are explained.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Annie E. P. Gamwell, Diary for 29 March 1936, LFF 2.991

Notes on the massive revision job reoccur in Lovecraft’s letters throughout 1936, and the stress built up as Lovecraft required extensions on the original deadline.

I had a hell of a siege getting that Renshaw ghost-writing job done on time—the deadline having been extended a bit. The last chapter—where I had to dope out a complete reading course in literature, the sciences, & the arts, mentioning the latest text-books in fields covering the rapidly changing sciences–was the really killing part. At the end I had to work 60 hours without sleep—but I finally got the damn thing into the mails. There may be more to do on it yet—& the trivial detail of price is not yet settled. If Mrs. Renshaw tries to drive me under 200 bucks, she’s a cheap skate!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 363

As a matter of fact, owing to the lateness, Lovecraft only requested $100 for the massive job…and got it.

RenshawLetter

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library

In fact, much of what Lovecraft had written was seriously abridged or cut from the final book, which was published as Well-Bred Speech (1936). Lovecraft performed the final revisions amiably enough:

Well—I am still working on that Renshaw text-book. The manuscript, considerably abridged, came back once more for revision, & now (am reading the printer’s proofs & catching a number of errors therein.) The job is being handled by the Standard Press of 930 H. St., N.W.—perhaps you know of it. It will have to be done & delivered by Nov. 5th, since the course involving the book opens on the 6th. Haste has made this job more difficult than it would otherwise have been.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 29 Oct 1936, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 344

RenshawLetter2

Read the whole letter at the John Hay Library.

It is not clear whether Lovecraft and Renshaw corresponded during the final months of his life remaining to him, although his last, unfinished letter to James F. Morton in 1937 includes reference to the ordeal of getting the manuscript together.

Anne Tillery Renshaw continued to teach, lecture, and write until her death on 24 June 1944.

For twenty-two years of correspondence (1914-1936), very little survives. Ten letters from Lovecraft to Renshaw are published in The Letters of Elizabeth Toldridge and Anne Tillery Renshaw, along with the previously unpublished sections of Well Bred Speech that Lovecraft wrote but were cut from the final product. Portions of six of these letters were previously published in the Arkham House Selected Letters. Eight letters & cards from Anne Tillery Renshaw to Lovecraft, all dating from 1935-1936, have been scanned and may be viewed online at the John Hay Library website.


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

“The Night Ocean” (1936) by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft

 For I have always been a seeker, a dreamer, and a ponderer on seeking and dreaming; and who can say that such a nature does not open latent eyes sensitive to unsuspected worlds and orders of being?
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean” (1936)

From 28 July to 1 September 1936, R. H. Barlow visited H. P. Lovecraft for what would be the final time. Barlow had just turned 18 the previous May, and his parent’s marriage was on the point of deterioration; the young man was destined to stay with relatives in Kansas City, and a brief term at the Kansas City Art Institute. But for over a month he roomed at the boarding house near Lovecraft’s home on 66 College Street, and it was presumably at this time that Lovecraft made some revisions to Barlow’s story “The Night Ocean.”

A few paragraphs of this story had first been published as “A Fragment” in The Californian Winter 1935 issue. The Californian was the amateur journal of Hyman Bradofsky, one to which Lovecraft and a few of his friends such as Natalie H. Wooley also contributed, and Lovecraft was luring Barlow into amateur journalism, at least for a brief spell. Lovecraft mentions “The Night Ocean” among items he hadn’t seen before Barlow’s visit (O Fortunate Floridian! 353), so it seems clear that this was a story Barlow had been working on for quite some time. There is some evidence in Lovecraft’s letters that Barlow was at loose ends during this period, trying many different things—art, writing, printing, poetry—to see where his talents were best suited, and this included writing a passel of fiction, some of it carefully, some of it hastily.

Lovecraft apparently showed some of these fictional efforts to August Derleth during or shortly after Barlow’s stay, including an intriguing piece titled “I Hate Queers” which does not appear to have survived. After passing along Derleth’s criticism, Lovecraft wrote:

Barlow appreciates your criticism immensely, & will doubtless be guided by them in future attempts. He is now, of course, in a purely experimental stage—scarcely knowing what he wants to write, or whether he wants to write at all…as distinguished from painting, printing, bookbinding, &c. My own opinion is that writing best suits him–but I think he does better in fantasy than in realism. A recent atmospheric sketch of his—”The Night Ocean”—is quite Blackwoodian in its power of dark suggestion.—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Sep 1936, Essential Solitude 2.748

Lovecraft’s suggested revisions for “The Night Ocean” were somewhat uncharacteristically light. While we often think of Lovecraft essentially re-writing stories, in this case his changes only amount to less than 10% of the work. A typed manuscript with Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions survives, and is reproduced in facsimile in Lovecraft Annual #8. Barlow then prepared a fresh typescript incorporating most (but not all) of Lovecraft’s suggested revisions, which was submitted and accepted by Bradofsky, who published it in Winter 1936 issue of The Californian. In his letters, Lovecraft praised Barlow and the story:

Glad to know that you’ve been in touch with Kansas City’s brilliant new citizen, & hope you’ll be able to meet the little imp in person before long. He is certainly one of the brightest & most promising kids I have ever seen—gifted alike in literature, art, & various forms of craftsmanship—& despite his present scattering of energies in different fields I think he will go far in the end. His studies at the Art Institute will undoubtedly be very good for him, & help him to establish a sort of aesthetic orientation. Hope he’ll meet your uncle amidst the academic maze—though the size of the institution doubtless minimises the chances of accidental contact. Barlow has been growing fast in a literary as well as artistic way—as you doubtless deduced from his “Dim-Remembered Story” in The Californian. A still later tale of his—”The Night Ocean”, also scheduled for The Californianshows an even greater advance, being really one of the finest atmospheric studies ever written by a member of the group.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Natalie H. Wooley, 21 Nov 1936, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 213

As much as Lovecraft is sometimes held to include autobiographical elements in his stories, it’s hard not to see something of young Barlow in the the nameless narrator; a sensitive artist who holds himself apart from the crude masses of normal people. Whose sensitive soul opens him to vague fears when they finally achieve the isolation they had thought they wanted:

That the place was isolated I have said, and this at first pleased me; but in that brief evening hour when the sun left a gore-splattered decline and darkness lumbered on like an expanding shapeless blot, there was an alien presence about the place: a spirit, a mood, an impression that came from the surging wind, the gigantic sky, and that sea which drooled blackening waves upon a beach grown abruptly strange. At these times I felt an uneasiness which had no very definite cause, although my solitary nature had made me long accustomed to the ancient silence and the ancient voice of nature. These misgivings, to which I could have put no sure name, did not affect me long, yet I think now that all the while a gradual consciousness of the ocean’s immense loneliness crept upon me, a loneliness that was made subtly horrible by intimations—which were never more than such—of some animation or sentience preventing me from being wholly alone.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

Massimo Barruti, who has examined “The Night Ocean” in the greatest depth in his book Dim-Remembered Stories: A Critical Study of R. H. Barlow notes that the story is a “textbook example of the extreme sensitiveness and poetic attitude of Barlow’s personality” (102)—the mental degeneration brought by isolation and a too-active imagination causes the protagonist to question reality, even as he populates his nighttime seashore with nameless terrors. Imagine an Innsmouth without any Deep Ones, yet none the less haunting for their absence, to one of sufficient temperament to imagine croaking voices by night, or hear something sinister in the splash of water.

“The Night Ocean” is Barlow at his most Lovecraftian. He never tries to pastiche Lovecraft exactly, or to tie his artist’s strange fears, longing, and imagined horrors into anything from Lovecraft’s nascent Mythos, although readers can certainly draw such connections themselves. Instead, Barlow reproduces the atmosphere and themes of Lovecraft, tries to capture and express the cosmicism—perhaps in homage to his mentor, perhaps as a reflection to how much of an influence Lovecraft had on him. Brian Humphreys explored this in detail in “‘The Night Ocean’ and the Subtleties of Cosmicism” in Lovecraft Studies #30. One thing that Humphreys notes is: “He has left society to be alone, yet feels lonely in his solitude” (18).

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

While he has achieved a posthumous notoriety as one of Lovecraft’s homosexual friends and correspondents, Barlow does not seem to have expressed his sexuality in his published fiction in any overt manner, or even by obvious metaphor or allegory. There might have been something in “I Hate Queers” that addressed his experience as a closeted homosexual growing up in a very homophobic society, but that piece no longer appears to be extant…and it is worth a little digression to ask what we know about Barlow’s sexuality and how we know it.

Like several of Lovecraft’s young proteges, Barlow became an active homosexual. His homosexuality, however, may not have developed until after Lovecraft’s death; at least, Lovecraft apparently never knew of his young friend’s deviation.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 190

As far as I have been able to determine, de Camp was the first writer to publicly “out” Barlow as homosexual. Lovecraft never mentions this in his letters, nor does E. Hoffmann Price in his memoirs The Book of the Dead mentions Barlow in California, but gives no hint of homosexuality, and none of the memorial pieces after Barlow’s passing mention it. Given the atmosphere of prejudice regarding homosexuality at the time, if any of those who knew Barlow did know about his sexuality, they might have deliberately avoided mention to preserve his memory and reputation. That being said, rumors of Barlow’s sexuality had apparently been circulating for some time within some circles:

Barlow is for sure a homo; from what I have heard, so was the late minister-weird taler Henry S. Whitehead. Any anybody with a mandarin moustache is vulnerable to the kind of flattery, larding I can do very well.
—August Derleth to Donald Wandrei, 21 March [1937]

Derleth had not met either Whitehead or Barlow in person; it is possible that his intuition on Barlow’s sexuality was based entirely on the “I Hate Queers” manuscript and his own experiences. While this is speculative, it could be that the story dealt with a homosexual man who assumed a homophobic persona to better conceal his own sexuality. While this might seem like a stretch, in Barlow’s 1944 autobiographical essay he recalls something of this mindset:

Once I saw a man bring a sailor up to his room and thought of protesting to the management. A blond clerk and a Basque elevator boy—man, rather—caught my eye, and I took them out once or twice to drink at my expense.
—R. H. Barlow, “Autobiography” in O Fortunate Floridian! 411

This autobiographical essay is the most singularly definitive proof we have of Barlow’s sexuality; he very clearly describes his interests, even if he does not record any detailed encounters. When describing his stay with Claire and Groo Beck in California, he wrote:

I could not decide which of the Beck boys to fall in love with and vacillated continually. Claire had a mania for bathing, and I saw him once or twice quite naked. He had a nice prick, uncircumcised. At other times he found excuses to go downstairs from the bath to the living room, dressed only in skin-tight drawers, which also showed him off to advantage. (ibid. 410)

It’s not clear if de Camp read this essay among Barlow’s papers, or whether he picked up the rumors about Barlow’s sexuality. There are many inaccuracies in de Camp’s rendering of Lovecraft and other figures, so it is not beyond the pale to think that de Camp presented rumors as fact. His last word on Barlow in the book is a good example of what he could write without citing any sources:

All this time, however, Barlow energetically pursued his career as a homosexual lover. This was long before Gay Liberation, and Mexico has been if anything less tolerant of sexual deviation than the United States. On January 2, 1951, Barlow killed himself with an overdose of sedatives, because he was being blackmailed for his relations with Mexican youths.
—L. Sprague de Camp, H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography (1975), 431-432

This interpretation of Barlow’s death has since become generally accepted, mainly because no one else has come up with a better reason for Barlow’s suicide at about the height of his career. William S. Burroughs who was present in Mexico at the time and commented on Barlow’s suicide does mention that Barlow was “queer”, but does not mention blackmail. Barlow himself asserts in his autobiography that by 1944 he had “a good part of the material things I have desired—money, sex, a small reputation for ability […]” (O Fortunate Floridian! 407) so de Camp’s assertion is not impossible—merely unconfirmed, and perhaps unconfirmable.

Questions of how “out” Barlow was remain essentially unanswered. He did not, for the most part, grow up in any urban area which might have had an active homosexual subculture to be out in; and what can be reconstructed of his adult life shows him very candid about his sexuality but also not, apparently, flaunting it. The earliest possible hint of his burgeoning sexuality might have been an entry in his 1933 diary for May 23:

Back at George’s again, when he & Si arrived, Si went calmly about cleaning up, in a semi-nude condition. It is perhaps indiscreet to record such observations on paper, for my meaning might be misconstrued, but he looked lovely and young and strong and clean…He is a fine boy; the nicest, I believe, I have ever known. Too, he treats me decently, something no other has ever done.

It isn’t clear who “Si” is, although apparently George and Si are neighbors of the 15 year-old Barlow in or around Deland, Florida. If this is an indication of Barlow’s early awareness of his sexuality, it predated his first meeting with Lovecraft in 1934.

Which brings us back, after a long digression, to Barlow and “The Night Ocean.” Because however much of himself Barlow may have poured into the story, the mood he captured regards that which is not simply mysterious, but unknowable. There are secrets which we cannot fathom, no matter how hard we try…and the narrator accepts this as something essential to the very nature of the sea itself:

The night ocean withheld whatever it had nurtured. I shall know nothing more.
—R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft, “The Night Ocean”

There is much about R. H. Barlow’s life that we will never know; no matter what bits and pieces wash upon the beach for us to find, there are some things we cannot know. Why did he take his own life? Who did de Camp get his information from? Did Lovecraft ever pick up on his young friend’s sexuality? Shapes in the waves as the sun sets, shadows on the water that suggest more than they define. “The Night Ocean” is not a metaphor for Barlow’s life; he could not know when he wrote it in 1935-1936 what the skein of his career would be, in terms of who he would become Barlow had hardly been born yet. Yet it is a very Lovecraftian story…and R. H. Barlow lived, and ultimately died, a very Lovecraftian death.

“The Night Ocean” by R. H. Barlow with H. P. Lovecraft may be read for free online here.


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

“The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892) by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

It is dull enough to confuse the eye in following, pronounced enough to constantly irritate, and provoke study, and when you follow the lame, uncertain curves for a little distance they suddenly commit suicide—plunge off at outrageous angles, destroy themselves in unheard-of contradictions.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “The Yellow Wallpaper” (1892)

Old Keziah, he reflected, might have had excellent reasons for living in a room with peculiar angles; for was it not through certain angles that she claimed to have gone outside the boundaries of the world of space we know?
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Dreams in the Witch-House” (1933)

Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1860-1935) was a feminist, humanist, social reformer, lecturer and writer. She was born in Connecticut, and spent much of her early life in Providence, Rhode Island, H. P. Lovecraft’s home town. Like Lovecraft she had limited formal education, but was a prodigious autodidact. As with many of the more famous writers of his day, Lovecraft’s brush with Gilman was one-sided: his letters attest to an awareness of her work and as an individual, but her letters and diaries do not mention Lovecraft. His work, limited mostly to the pulps and the amateur press, either did not rise to her notice or did not merit comment.

At one point, however, there might have been a stronger connection:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is the sole fictional effort of the feminist & social worker Charlotte Perkins Gilman—whom, by the way, my mother knew in youth. It is a most insidiously potent tale of the aura of madness, & was included by William Dean Howells in his anthology of American Short Story masterpieces.
H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 11 Jan 1927, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 31

My mother knew her well-since as plain Charlotte Perkins she used to be governess in the home of some friends of ours. Later her first husband was the Providence artist Stetson. She always had an affected, eccentric streak of self-conscious intellectuality.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

In 1883, Charlotte Anna Perkins was living in Providence, Rhode Island. She had been working as a teacher or tutor, and recounts:

I gave drawing lessons to a boy and a girl, the girl died, and the lonely little brother begged to have me come and stay with him. So I tried governessing, for ten weeks, and learned more about the servant question in that time than most of us ever find out.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman: An Autobiography 69

According to her letters, the clients were Dr. and Mrs. Jackson of Providence; the boy was Eddie. The 1880 census lists a Walter Marsh Jackson, physician; wife, Amelia (Amy) Jackson, daughter Isabel Jackson (died 1883, age 13), and son Edward P. Jackson. The Jacksons are buried in Swan Point Cemetery, where H. P. Lovecraft and the Phillips family are also buried.

Charlotte Perkins’ ten weeks as governess of Eddie began on 16 July 1883, and part of it was spent in Maine. Sarah Susan Phillips (1857-1921) in 1881 was living at the family home, 194 Angell St. The Jacksons are the most likely candidates for a mutual acquaintance with the future Mrs. Lovecraft, but Gilman’s letters of the period do not reference a Mrs. Phillips or her sisters—so the connection is tenuous. It is interesting to note that there are two surviving letters sent by Gilman from 207 Angell St., which is less 100 yards from the Phillips’ home, so it is not impossible that the then Charlotte Perkins and Susie Lovecraft might have met on the street, or had other acquaintances in common at the time.

Their lives diverged. In May 1884, Charlotte Perkins married her first husband, the Providence artist Charles Stetson. Their daughter Katharine Stetson was born eleven months later in 1885. Her periodic depressions deepened after the birth, and in April 1887 she broke down. Women’s medicine at the time was dominated by sexist attitudes; she submitted for a period to the “rest cure” of neurologist S. Weir Mitchell, but…well, as she puts it so elegantly:

For many years I suffered from a severe and continuous nervous breakdown tending to melancholia-and beyond. During about the third year of this trouble I went, in devout faith and some faint stir of hope, to a noted specialist in nervous diseases, the best known in the country. This wise man put me to bed and applied the rest cure, to which a still good physique responded so promptly that he concluded there was nothing much the matter with me, and sent me home with solemn advice to “live a domestic a life as far as possible,” to “have but two hours’ intellectual life a day,” and “never to touch pen, brush or pencil again as long a I lived.” This was in 1897.

I went home and obeyed those directions for some three months, and came so near the border line of utter mental ruin that I could see over.

I then, using the remnant of intelligence that remained, and helped by a wise friend, I cast the noted specialist’s advice to the winds and went to work againwork, the normal life of every human being; work , in which is joy and growth and service, without which one is a pauper and a parasite; ultimately recovering some measure of power.

Being naturally moved to rejoicing by this narrow escape, I wrote The Yellow Wallpaper, with its embellishments and additions to carry out the ideal (I never had hallucinations or objections to my mural decorations) and sent a copy to the physician who so nearly drove me mad. He never acknowledged it.
—Charlotte Perkins Gilman, “Why I Wrote The Yellow Wallpaper” (1913)

“The Yellow Wallpaper” was actually written in 1890, and finally published in 1892 in The New England Magazine, and there is a degree of myth-making in some of Gilman’s later claims about the story, as explored by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz in Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of “The Yellow-Wallpaper” (2010), but that is a bit beyond the scope of this article. Suffice to say that by the time Lovecraft first mentions the story in his letters in 1926, “The Yellow Wallpaper” had already been established as a story of note.

Your plan for a weird bibliography is splendid, & I hope to see it carried into effect. Such a thing ought to include not only books but isolated tales in magazines as well; since some veritable masterpieces have never got beyond that form. Single tales in anthologies, also, (like Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in Howells’ collection) merit citation.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 24 Dec 1926, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 26

It’s not clear when Lovecraft first read the story, but starting in 1925 he began an intensive course of reading weird fiction to write his essay Supernatural Horror in Literature (1927), so it is possible he read it during that period. The anthology he mentions is The Great Modern American Stories: An Anthology (1920), edited by William Dean Howells. In his introduction, Howells writes of Gilman’s story:

It wanted at least two generations to freeze our young blood with Mrs. Perkins Gilman’s story of The Yellow Wall Paper, which Horace Scudder (then of The Atlantic) said in refusing it that it was so terribly good that it ought never to be printed. But terrible and too wholly dire it was, I could not rest until I had corrupted the editor of The New England Magazine into publishing it. Now that I have got it into my collection here, I shiver over it as much as I did when I first read it in manuscript, though I agree with the editor of The Atlantic of the time that it was too terribly good to be printed. (vii)

Lovecraft’s response is withering:

Am surprised that Howells was concerned in a venture like this, since ordinarily he was old-womanishly opposed to the really gruesome & terrible. He made an absurd apology for including Mrs. Gilman’s “Yellow Wall Paper” in an anthology he edited.
H. L. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 27 Sep 1927, Essential Solitude 1.37

In “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft is generally positive about “The Yellow Wallpaper”:

With this foundation, no one need wonder at the existence of a literature of cosmic fear. It has always existed, and always will exist; and no better evidence of its tenacious vigour can be cited than the impulse which now and then drives writers of totally opposite leanings to try their hands at it in isolated tales, as if to discharge from their minds certain phantasmal shapes which would otherwise haunt them. Thus Dickens wrote several eerie narratives; Browning, the hideous poem “Childe Roland”; Henry James, The Turn of the Screw; Dr. Holmes, the subtle novel Elsie Venner; F. Marion Crawford, “The Upper Berth” and a number of other examples; Mrs. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, social worker, “The Yellow Wall Paper”; whilst the humourist W. W. Jacobs produced that able melodramatic bit called “The Monkey’s Paw”. […]

Charlotte Perkins Gilman, in “The Yellow Wall Paper”, rises to a classic level in subtly delineating the madness which crawls over a woman dwelling in the hideously papered room where a madwoman was once confined.

Lovecraft’s interpretation is fair, but curious. Many readings, especially today, focus more on the “rest cure” aspect, and the suggestion of postpartum depression. The women’s horrors, as it were. Lovecraft’s reading focuses on the subtle suggestions that Gilman never makes explicit: why has this colonial manse gone untenanted so long? Who is the woman she sees in the wallpaper?—and comes to his own conclusion. He stops short of suggesting a haunting, and it seems he was aware that the focus was on the slowly devolving mindset of the protagonist, the creeping psychological horror—and writing to August Derleth a few years later, when Derleth was working on his thesis “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890”:

“The Yellow Wall Paper” is a great tale, but to me it lacks just that final touch of “outsideness” necessary to make the top grade […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 7 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.265

My stand on cosmic outsideness, however, is likely to remain unchanged; for I feel that this element is eminently necessary to produce a macabre thrill of the very first water. “The Yellow Wall Paper” & “Shadows on the Wall” are excellent of their kind, but the sensation they produce is a tame & secondary one as compared with that produced by “The Willows”, “The White People”, “The House of Sounds”, or even (in my estimation, at least) “The Yellow Sign.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Jun 1930, Essential Solitude 2.268

Derleth differed:

The weird tale can, I believe, be divided into two rough classes—those hinting of cosmic evil and horror—and those only vaguely suggesting something beyond, something beyond the surface, the appearance, and range all the way from vague fright to utmost horror. You prefer the former group, to which we would according to this grouping, parcel such tales as The Yellow Sign, your Cthulhu et al[.] tales, the White People, etc.; I prefer the latter group, in which fall Mary E. Wilkins-Freeman’s tales, your own Rats in the Walls, Strange High House, my Panelled Room, etc., The Monkey’s Paw, The Yellow Wall Paper. And so on. The vast majority of the first-raters belong in this latter class.
—August Derleth to H. P. Lovecraft, 2 Nov 1931, Essential Solitude 2.402

However, Derleth did take Lovecraft’s reading to heart:

The Yellow Wall Paper is the story of a woman who goes made from the effect of hideously yellow wall paper in the room where she is convalescing, and where a mad-woman was once confined. The narrator, who is being urged to fight off the delusion that there is a woman trying to escape from behind the wall paper, enters gradually and subtly into the character of the imagined person; in reality this character, composed of forces left behind by the late madwoman, enters into her. Her husband does not realize the effect of the wall paper, nor does he regard the recent presence of the madwoman as significant. The story rises to a climax with startling subtlety, and the delineation of the approaching madness is classic. […]

There is something shudderingly horrible in the thought of this woman chronicling day by day her approaching madness, and remaining stolidly unaware of it all the time. Horror lies between the lines here, and the reader must read it in to get the full force of the story. […]

There is a suggestion of the “outside” [in The Yellow Sign by Robert W. Chambers”], which neither The Yellow Wall Paper nor The Upper Berth [by F. Marion Crawford] carried […]
—August Derleth, “The Weird Tale in English Since 1890” in The Ghost (1945) 8-9

Neither Lovecraft nor Derleth denied the importance or the efficacy of “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a weird tale; Derleth himself borrowed heavily from Gilman when he wrote “The Panelled Room” (written 1930, published 1933). Both counted it an important tale worth mentioning in their respective overviews of weird fiction—and in this they were perhaps a little ahead of the game; while some classify “The Yellow Wallpaper” as a Gothic story, Edith Birkhead in The Tale of Terror: A Study of the Gothic Romance (1921) does not list it; neither does Dorothy Scarborough in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917). Both those women focused on supernatural horror, and as Lovecraft pointed out—”The Yellow Wallpaper” isn’t quite that. The horror is more vague, indeterminate, and we never quite know how much is real and how much is in the narrator’s mind.

“The Yellow Wallpaper” is weird. So what influence did it have on Lovecraft?

In terms of direct influence, it’s hard to say. There are definitely elements of “The Yellow Wallpaper” that jive with Lovecraft’s pet themes: the question of sanity, the descent into madness, the particular focus on angles—“The Dreams in the Witch-House” might owe at least a little debt to “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Lovecraft himself, however, never offers any insights in this line. Savvy readers might point out that Gilman’s hotel in “The Shadow over Innsmouth” or Walter Gilman in “The Dreams in the Witch-House” which could be glancing references, but aside from the obvious pun in the case of Innsmouth, “Gilman” is also an old established New England name—Lovecraft might have been inspired by her, or not. He is silent on the matter.

Gilman’s novel Herland was not published until long after both their deaths, so from Lovecraft’s perspective, she had only a single weird tale to her credit:

In the case of general authors who have produced a little weird material, one has to use one’s own judgment. I would, in such cases, ask (a) how typical of this author is his weird stuff, & (b) all apart from this, how important is this weird material? […] I’d admit Mrs. Gilman for her one weird tale—”The Yellow Wall Paper”—because of its great importance, though it is wholly non-typical of her.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Emil Petaja, 29 Dec 1934, Letters w/Donald & Howard Wandrei &c. 396

There is little left to say. Lovecraft’s final word on Gilman concerns notice of her death. Suffering from breast cancer, she chose to take her own life with chloroform.

Too bad Mrs. Gilman bumped herself off—I was told of it in N Y, though I haven’t reached Aug. 17 as yet in my reading-up of back newspapers. […] Well—may she rest in peace!
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 20 Sep 1935, Essential Solitude 2.708

There are few enough women mentioned in Supernatural Horror in Literature; whether this reflected Lovecraft’s particular reading or any unspoken sexism on his part is unclear. Yet he went out of his way more than once in both that public essay and in his private letters to champion Charlotte Perkins Gilman for her weird tale “The Yellow Wallpaper”…and who can say that Gilman’s depiction of creeping madness did not strike a chord in Lovecraft, if the memory of the story stayed with him all those years?

“The Yellow Wallpaper” can be read for free online here.

Thanks to Donovan Loucks and Dave Goudsward for their help.


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