Deeper Cut: Lovecraft in Chinatown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Providence

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

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

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

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

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

Boston

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

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

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

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

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

New York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Daily News, 19 Oct 1924

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Chinatowns

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

Chinatown & Lovecraft’s Asiaphobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

British vs. American Fantasy Racism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

White Mythic Spaces & Black Hobbits

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Machen & Mongoloids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Half-Elves & Hybridity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jews, Dwarves, & Hitler

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

J. R. R. Tolkien, 1964 Interview

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

W. Scott Poole, In the Mountains of Madness 229

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Comparisons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Racialist Legacy of Lovecraft & Tolkien

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Final Word

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


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

Deeper Cut: The Hormonal Lovecraft

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

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

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

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

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

The Gland Doctors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gland Stories

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transitioning Into the 21st Century

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survivor and Others 1957, inside front jacket flap

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

The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Wentworth’s Day,” at 4500 words

“The Gable Window,” at 7500 words

“The Peabody Heritage,” at 7500 words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survivor and Others 1957, copyright page

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Notes and Commonplace Book of H. P. Lovecraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Haefele, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos 228

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

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

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

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


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

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“Not All Anglo-Saxons” (1911) by Herbert O’Hara Molineux

H. P. Lovecraft grew up in a culture where racism was relatively commonplace, and prejudices with regard to race, ethnicity, language, and cultural heritage dominated the national discourse. 135 years after the Declaration of Independence and 46 years after the end of the American Civil War, people still argued about who was a “real” American, or who could be.

In the New-York Tribune for 30 June 1911, an anonymous editor filled some column inches with the article “‘American’ Is Right,” which reads in part:

New_York_Tribune_Fri__Jun_30__1911_

The article argues in favor of the continued use of “American” as a demonym for citizens of the United States, and “American” as an adjective related to the United States of America and its people—and in common use, the term continues to carry that meaning into the present day.

Buried as it is on page 6 of a slim 14-page daily newspaper, the “‘American’ Is Right” elicited little immediate attention. Some months later, however, reader John L. M. Allen wrote in to the editor concerning the article, and this letter was published in the 10 September 1911 New-York Tribune as “Wants An American Language”:

New_York_Tribune_Sun__Sep_10__1911_

The years before World War I were marked by increasing nationalism in the United States and abroad; relations between the United States and the United Kingdom were undergoing a change, as close economic relations, common language and culture, racialist ideas, shared history, and similar political ideologies fostered a Great Rapprochement between the two nations. Still, anglophobia remained in the United States, and ultranationalists emphasized the differences rather than the commonalities between United States and United Kingdom culture, a sentiment especially strong in immigrants or those with ties to Ireland or British colonies.

In September 1911, H. P. Lovecraft was in his seclusion; the death of his grandfather in 1904 had forced his mother Sarah Susan Lovecraft and himself to move out of the family house where he had grown up and into smaller quarters; nervous illness in 1908 forced his withdrawal from high school, so that he did not finish his formal education or receive a high school diploma. Twenty-one years old and unemployed, he seems to have largely made his own hours, and filled them in part by reading extensively in newspapers and magazines. As this was some years before Lovecraft’s joining amateur journalism or any regular correspondence that has come down to us, there is little data to go on. However, we know that Lovecraft read “Wants An American Language”—because the opinionated young man wrote his own letter to the editor“The English Language” was published in the 21 September 1911 New-York Tribune:

New_York_Tribune_Thu__Sep_21__1911_

Lovecraft was a lifelong and ardent anglophile, a point which would in a few years bring him into contention with the Irish-American amateur journalist John T. Dunn, first with regards to Lovecraft’s support of the United Kingdom in World War I, and then with regard to the Irish War of Independence. As a lover of the English language, Lovecraft was also in favor of British (and, to a point, British Colonial) spelling, as is evident in many of his letters and stories. It would not be out of line to suggest that Lovecraft saw himself as essentially English except in certain trifling legal definitions, and saw the English language as his own:

I deny flatly that American civilisation is composite, or in any way otherwise than Anglo-Saxon. This land was bleak, Indian-haunted wilderness when England found it. England made it what it is. […] If this nation ever becomes really composite; if the polyglot lower elements ever rise to the surface and direct the destinies of the whole people, then the United States will have undergone intellectual and moral death, and must be content to take its inferior place beside Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and other decidedly immigrant nations. […] If other nationalities are now represented here, it is only on sufferance. They are charity boarders, as it were. For this is an Englishman’s country.
—H. P. Lovecraft to John T. Dunn, 14 Oct 1916, Letters to Alfred Galpin & Others 166

I stick to the civilisation my blood & people belong to—the Old English civilisation of Great Britain, New England, & Virginia. To that, & to the language & manners characteristic of it.
—H. P. Lovecraft to James F. Morton, 8 Jan 1930, Letters to James F. Morton 215

At this point in his life, Lovecraft’s white supremacist notions (“Anglo-Saxons […] by their racial superiority”) and nativist bias (“polyglot mass of sodden foreigners”) were likely as yet unperturbed by broad travel, first-hand experience, or vocal opposition.

Lovecraft’s use of the term “Anglo-Saxon” as synonymous with “English” in this instance is worth examining. “Anglo-Saxon” is an often misunderstood and misused term that found its place in racial hierarchies because it fit the narrative of an “English race” that the people at the time wanted to impose on their understanding of history—the idea of a homogenous, and above all white, population that was distinct from the indigenous Gaelic peoples of the British Isles or from the British Empire’s colonial possessions. When Lovecraft uses the term “Anglo-Saxon,” he is specifically invoking that idea of racial and cultural unity and the added implications of white supremacy.

By comparison, while “American” has gradually become a term to refer to all citizens of the United States regardless of race or ethnicity, during Lovecraft’s time it was still predominantly seen as a synonymous term for “white” — the default assumption was that “American” referred to someone descended from Northern Europe, probably British, and English-speaking — “Anglo-American” was used when Lovecraft or others felt the need to specify such descent to differentiate from other ethnicities, but even this sometimes involved pushback. After a visit to New Mexico, Robert E. Howard wrote:

The native population is, of course, predominantly Mexican. Or as they call them out there, Spanish-Americans. You or I would be Anglo-Americans according to their way of putting it. Spanish-American, hell. A Mexican is a Mexican to me, wherever I find him, and I don’t consider it necessary for me to hang any prefix on the term “American” when referring to myself.
—Robert E. Howard to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jul 1935, A Means to Freedom 2.872

Lovecraft, Howard, and many others during this period were inculcated in the use of racialist language to both define and promulgate the ideas of white supremacy. To Lovecraft, the use of “Anglo-Saxon” was a technical and specific term to emphasize the English people he felt himself a part of, biologically and culturally. Even though the idea that “Anglo-Saxon” race and culture are essentially pseudo-scientific and historical fictions, they were commonly accepted as real at the time, and used by folks like Howard and Lovecraft to define their own identities. While we don’t have much material from the period of 1910-1912 to work with, based on Lovecraft’s later letters this kind of comment slipping would probably have been relatively common—after all, “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-American” were the prevailing paradigm. Who was going to correct him?

An answering letter to the editor appeared as “Not All Anglo-Saxons” in the 25 September 1911 New-York Tribune:

New_York_Tribune_Mon__Sep_25__1911_

This is an impressive turnaround time…all the more so since Lovecraft’s letter was published on the 21st, yet Herbert O’Hara Molineux’s reply is dated the 20th! What likely happened is that the next day’s paper was sold in the late night or early morning of the 20th/21st, and Molineux was incensed enough to write a letter to the editor immediately, complete with date (or else there was an error somewhere in the transcription and printing). Even with Molineux in New York at the time, it must have been delivered and read by the editor within a day or two, who then chose to publish it only a day or two after that, so only four days after Lovecraft’s letter was published there was an answer. This small controversy in letters foreshadows Lovecraft’s later disputes-by-mail in the letters column of the Argosy and All-Story in 1913-1914.

Not much is known Herbert O’Hara Molineux (sometimes Molyneux); a number of short articles and letters to the editor were published by that name, mostly between 1910-1914 in New York papers, often on subjects of Ireland and Irish or “Celtic” peoples in newspapers, and those same articles describe him as an antiquarian and a member of the Gaelic Society of New York. Irish immigrants and Irish-Americans in the United States were still often discriminated against in the early 20th century and its racialist schemas, but the rise in nationalism had affected Ireland and the Irish diaspora too, with a renewed interest in Irish language and culture called the Gaelic Revival, which would precede and inform the broader Celtic Revival of the 1920s and beyond.

It is not surprising to see in this letter that Molineux’s hibernophilia or celtiphilia ran up hard against Lovecraft’s anglophilia. The most notable point in Molineux’s argument is not his assertion that most Americans are Celts, but his deriding Lovecraft for his racial prejudice. If Lovecraft read these lines, it might be the first denunciation of his racism he had ever seen in print—predating “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson by some years.

Unfortunately, there is no evidence that Lovecraft ever read this rebuke. This period of Lovecraft’s life is simply too poorly documented; where we would normally turn to his letters to find some reference to Molineux or the brief affray in letters, there is nothing in the indices to shed any light on the subject. It is interesting to speculate how Lovecraft might have responded; in 1915, private correspondence with friends and peers ultimately tempered and muted Lovecraft’s instinct for a vicious reprisal in print, and even his poetic rejoinder went unprinted. Interestingly, there is a poetic barb aimed at Herbert O’Hara Molineux, but it is from several years later, in a different newspaper, and not at all in Lovecraft’s normal style or signed by one of his known pseudonyms.

In the context of Lovecraft’s other letters, this brief exchange doesn’t share much of anything new in terms of his prejudices—we knew he was a nativist and an anglophile—but it is a data point that extends our understanding of how Lovecraft’s views on race were received during his own lifetime. While white supremacy prevailed in the United States, even down to the terminology of history and science, it was not the sole viewpoint. Lovecraft would learn, as he emerged from his period of relative obscurity into the company of amateur journalism and then pulp writing, there were many people who did not agree with the prejudices he had long accepted as facts, and other perspectives of history and biology that would challenge his preconceptions. 

As with several of his other letters, Molineux’s “Not All Anglo-Saxons” was picked up and published in at least one other paper, which can be found in an online newspaper database; from there the chain of letters-to-the-editor can be traced back through papers whose scans don’t include sufficiently accurate optical character recognition to search for specific names. Otherwise, this small affray in letters might have gone unnoticed.


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

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Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

His daughter, the wife of Shelley, was much more successful; and her inimitable Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (1818) is one of the horror-classics of all time. Composed in competition with her husband, Lord Byron, and Dr. John William Polidori in an effort to prove supremacy in horror-making, Mrs. Shelley’s Frankenstein was the only one of the rival narratives to be brought to an elaborate completion; and criticism has failed to prove that the best parts are due to Shelley rather than to her. The novel, somewhat tinged but scarcely marred by moral didacticism, tells of the artificial human being moulded from charnel fragments by Victor Frankenstein, a young Swiss medical student. Created by its designer “in the mad pride of intellectuality”, the monster possesses full intelligence but owns a hideously loathsome form. It is rejected by mankind, becomes embittered, and at length begins the successive murder of all whom young Frankenstein loves best, friends and family. It demands that Frankenstein create a wife for it; and when the student finally refuses in horror lest the world be populated with such monsters, it departs with a hideous threat ‘to be with him on his wedding night’. Upon that night the bride is strangled, and from that time on Frankenstein hunts down the monster, even into the wastes of the Arctic. In the end, whilst seeking shelter on the ship of the man who tells the story, Frankenstein himself is killed by the shocking object of his search and creation of his presumptuous pride. Some of the scenes in Frankenstein are unforgettable, as when the newly animated monster enters its creator’s room, parts the curtains of his bed, and gazes at him in the yellow moonlight with watery eyes—“if eyes they may be called”. Mrs. Shelley wrote other novels, including the fairly notable Last Man; but never duplicated the success of her first effort. It has the true touch of cosmic fear, no matter how much the movement may lag in places. Dr. Polidori developed his competing idea as a long short story, “The Vampyre”; in which we behold a suave villain of the true Gothic or Byronic type, and encounter some excellent passages of stark fright, including a terrible nocturnal experience in a shunned Grecian wood.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature” (1927)

We don’t know when H. P. Lovecraft first read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, though it was sometime before 1920, and quite possibly was read as a child, from a copy found among the books in the family library. During his life, Lovecraft would perceive the growing influence of this critical work of science fiction and horror in pop-culture: the first film adaptation, starring Boris Karloff as the Monster, was released in 1931 and Lovecraft would see it in the theatre; and Weird Tales would serialize Shelley’s novel between May and December 1932 as part of its “Weird Reprints” series, and Lovecraft would read it then too. Various writers in the pulps, including Lovecraft himself, would show the influence of Shelley’s creation, and Lovecraft was sure to include her in his survey of weird fiction “Supernatural Horror in Literature.”

Lovecraft would not quite live to see Frankenstein’s Monster become the icon—and stereotype—that he turned into in the 1940s and 50s; for him, Shelley’s novel would always have precedence over other depictions.

The Book (1818)

By the way—my F. is a 9 ¼ x 5 ½ volume–2 columns & very thin. The date is missing, but from the typography I’d tend to place it in the 1830s. That would seem a bit late for the first Am. ed. of a  volume issued in 1818. My copy has been re-bound. On the title-page the author is very explanatorily listed as “Mrs. Mary W. Shelley, wife of Percy Busshe Shelley the Poet.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 20 Apr 1935, O Fortunate Floridian! 238

There are two main editions of the text of Frankenstein: the original edition issued in 1818, which was revised in 1823; and then heavily revised again for the 1831 one-volume edition. The 1831 text has been the most popular version of the text, and the version that ran in Weird Tales. While Lovecraft dated his personal copy to the 1830s, the details he gives—an American edition in two columns and with that byline—point to the 1845 edition by H. G. Daggers of New York.

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Title page of the 1845 H. G. Daggers edition.

Of the novel itself, Lovecraft does not write much in his letters, so we are largely left to his notes in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as to his thoughts on the work. Nor is there any real evidence that he read The Last Man (1826) or Shelley’s other novels. There is one interesting highlight however:

As for weird reprints—I agree that short items are best. “Frankenstein” undoubtedly drags in places, yet has its tense & terrible moments—especially when the monster first comes to watch its creator at night.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 31 Mar 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 28

It is notable that Lovecraft cites this very same scene in his entry for “Supernatural Horror in Literature”—and, perhaps tellingly, this very scene is quoted in Dorothy Scarborough’s The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction (1917), which Lovecraft consulted before writing that essay. Which suggests either that either both Lovecraft and Scarborough were struck on the same passage…or that, perhaps, Lovecraft relied on Scarborough rather than re-reading the entire novel while composing his essay.

I saw—with shut eyes but acute mental vision—I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put togheter. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life. . . . The artist sleeps but he is awakened; and behold, the horrid thing stands at his bedside, looking on him with watery, yellow yet speculative eyes!
—Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley,
quoted in The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction 14

If Lovecraft cribbed a little, it was not because he hadn’t read or didn’t appreciate Shelley’s masterwork—quite the opposite. For example, when his friend Elizabeth Toldridge used the name “Frankenstein” in a poem she was writing, Lovecraft wrote back with a correction that would be echoed by generations of horror nerds:

In the next line remember that Frankenstein (in the novel, a Swiss medical student, Victor Frankenstein) means the creator of a destroying monsternot the monster itself. If you have that intention, it’s all right. If you mean the monster itself, better change to hydra-shapes or some equivalent.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 257

The poem, which survives in manuscript, is titled (at Lovecraft’s suggestion) simply “Poetry”, and the line reads:

Come match your strength with steel, meassure your will with iron, your speed try out with the stars! For thine were Frankenstein hydra-shapes man-wrought foes to bear—

And powers of evil, loose in the world, shall reel and titter, in a giant juggler’s roust—

The Film (1931)

The success of Universal’s Dracula in early 1931 spurred the studio on to produce more horror films. Frankenstein was produced and hit theaters by December of the same year, with Boris Karloff in the iconic role—and the distinct heavy-lidded flat-top make-up—of the Monster. The film takes considerable liberties with Mary Shelley’s novel; Victor Frankenstein becomes Henry Frankenstein, and much of the original plot, atmosphere, and motivation is lost. Lovecraft saw the film within the first week of its opening on the East Cost, and wrote:

I haven’t been able to get around to any cinemas except “Frankenstein”—which vastly disappointed me. The book has been altered beyond recognition, & everything is toned down to an insufferable cheapness & relative tameness. I fear the cinema is no place to get horror-thrills!
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 9 Dec 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 85

Also saw “Frankenstein” last month & was vastly disappointed. The film absolutely ruins the book–which indeed it scarcely resembles!
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 23 Dec 1931, O Fortunate Floridian! 18

“Frankenstein” was the only cinema I attended during the autumn of 1931, & I was woefully disappointed. No attempt to follow the novel was made, & everything was cheap, artificial, & mechanical. I might have expected it, though—for “Dracula” (which I saw in Miami, Fla. last June) was just as bad.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 28 Jan 1932, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 344

Lovecraft was, like many science fiction and horror fans, a bit of a purist who regretted the changes made to the material in its translation from the page to the silver screen. Time did not really mollify this opinion:

I saw the cinema of “Frankenstein”, & was tremendously disappointed because no attempt was made to follow the story. However, there have been many worse films–& many parts of this one are really quite dramatic when they are viewed independently & without comparison to the episodes of the original novel.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 10 Jul 1932, O Fortunate Floridian! 33

As a thorough soporific I recommend the average popularly “horrible” play or cinema or radio dialogue. They are all the same–flat, hackneyed, synthetic, essentially atmosphereless jumbles of conventional shrieks and mutterings and superficial, mechanical situations. The Bat” made me drowse back in the early 1920s–and last year an alleged “Frankenstein” on the screen would have made me drowse had not a posthumous sympathy for poor Mrs. Shelley made me see red instead. Ugh!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Farnsworth Wright, 16 Feb 1933, Lovecraft Annual 8.28

Most radio and cinema versions of classics constitute a combination of high treason and murder in the first degree—I’ll never get over the cinematic mess that bore the name (about the only bond of kinship to the book!) of “Frankenstein”.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 8 Apr 1934, A Means to Freedom 2.761

Keep in mind that Lovecraft lived before the home television and VCR revolution; his only experience of Frankenstein and other Universal horror films was if he could catch them in the theater—it was re-runs and rentals which cemented these as classic films, endlessly influential and copied. Lovecraft only caught the very beginnings of that…and, of course, he was inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as well.

The Dream (1920)

I had a vivid dream a few nights ago–involving the possession of another distinct personality. The period was 1864, & the crux of the dream was a horror in a doctor’s secret laboratory. Think the dream-doctor was going to shew me an artificial man like M. Frankenstein’s uncomely creation, but premature waking robbed the dream of its climax. In this dream I was Dr. Eben Spencer; an army surgeon home on a furlough. The sinister experimenter was a colleague of mine, Dr. Chester. Some dream!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 23 Jan 1920, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 154

In 1920, Lovecraft was finally coming out of his seclusion through the auspices of amateur journalism, and had built up a fairly robust correspondence with some friends. Weird Tales was still three years away from its debut issue, but he was well into his first major period of fiction which included dream-inspired stories such as “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (The Vagrant May 1920). In addition to this brief recap of the dream to Kleiner, Lovecraft included a much fuller version of the dream to his correspondence circle The Gallomo (Alfred Galpin, H. P. Lovecraft, and James F. Morton):

Speaking of the “Carter” story, I hae lately had another odd dream—especially singular because in it I possessed another personality—a personality just as definite and vivid as the Lovecraft personality which characterises my waking hours.

My name was Dr. Eben Spencer, and I was dressing before a mirror in my own room, in the hosue where I was born in a small village (name missing) of northern New York State. It was the first time I had donned civilian clothes in three years, for I was an army surgeon with the rank of 1st Lieut. I seemed to be home on a furlough—slightly wounded. On the wall was a calendar reading “FRIDAY, JULY 8, 1864”. I was very glad to be in regular attire again, though my suit was not a new one, but one left over from 1861. After carefully tying my stock, I donned my coat and hat, took a cane from a rack downstairs, and sallied forth upon the village street.

Soon a very young man of my acquaintence came up to me with an air of anxiety and began to speak in guarded accents. He wished me to go with him to his brother—my professional colleague Dr. Chester—whose actions were greatly alarming him. I, having been his best friend, might have some influence in getting him to speak freely—for surely he had much to tell. The doctor had for the past two years been conducting secret experiments in a laboratory in the attic of his home, and beyond that locked door he would admit no one but himself. Sickening odours were often detected near the door…and odd sounds were at times not absent.

The doctor was aging rapidly; lines of care—and of something else—were creeping into his dark, thin face, and his hair was rapidly going grey. He would remain in that locked room for dangerously long intervals without food, and seemed uncannily saturnine. All questioning from the younger brother was met with scorn or rage—with perhaps a little uneasiness; so that the brother was much worried, and stopped me on the street for advice and aid. I went with him to the Chester house—a white structure of two stories and attic in a pretty yeard with a picket fence. It was in a quiet side street, where peace seemed to abide despite the trying nature of the times. In the darkened parlour, where I waited for some time, was a marble-topped table, much haircloth furniture, and several pleasing whatnots covered with pebbles, curios, and bric-a-brac. Soon Dr. Chester came down—and he had aged.

He greeted me with a saturnine smile, and I began to question him, as tactfully as I could, about his strange actions. At first he was rather defiant and insulting—he said with a sort of leer, “Better not ask, Spencer! Better not ask!” Then when I grew persistent (for by this time I was interested on my own account) he changed abruptly and snapped out, “Well, if you must know, come up!” Up two flights of stairs we plodded, and stood before the locked door. Dr. Chester opened it, and there was an odour.

I entered after him, young Chester bringing up the rear. The room was low but spacious in area, and had been divided into two parts by an oddly incongruous red plush portiere. In the half next the door was a dissecting table, many bookcases, and several imposing cabinets of chemical and surgical instruments. Young Chester and I remained here, whilst the doctor went behind the curtain. Soon he emerged, bearing on a large glass slab what appeared to be a human arm, neatly severed just below the elbow. It was damp, gelatinous, and bluish-white, and the fingers were without nails.

“Well, Spencer”, said Dr. Chester sneeringly, “I suppose you’ve had a good deal of amputation practice in the army. What do you think, professionally, of this job?” I had seen clearly that this was not a human arm, and said sarcastically, “You are a better sculptor than doctor, Chester. This is not the arm of any living thin.” And Chester replied in a tone that made my blood congeal, “Not yet, Spencer, not yet!”

Then he disappeared again behind the portiere and emerged once more, bringing another and slightly larger arm. Both were left arms. I felt sure that I was on the brink of a great revelation, and awaited with impatience the tanalisingly deliberate motions of my sinister colleague. “This is only the beginning, Spencer,” he said as he went behind the curtain for the third time. “Watch the curtain!”

And now ends the fictionally available part of my dream, for the residue is grotesque anticlimax. I have said that I was in civilian clothes for the first time since ’61—and naturally I was rather self-conscious. As I waited for the final revelation I caught sight of my reflection in the glass door of an instrument case, and discovered that my very carefully tied stock was awry. Moving to a long mirror, I sought to adjust it, but the black bow proved hard to fashion artistically, and then the whole scene began to fade—and damn the luck! I awaked in the distressful year of 1920, with the personality of H. P. Lovecraft restored!

I have never seen Dr. Chester, or his younger brother, or that village, since. I do not know what village it was. I never heard the name of Eben Spencer before or since. Some dream! If that happened to Co [Edward H. Cole], he would be surely seeking a supernatural explanation; but I prefer actual analysis. The cause of the whole is clear—I had a few days before laid out Mrs. Shelley’s “Frankenstein” for re-reading.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, Apr 1920, Letters to Alfred Galpin 71-73
[The original lacks paragraph breaks; these were inserted for ease of reading.]

Lovecraft never fleshed out and finished this story. However, the next year, in the fall of 1921, Lovecraft would write another story that would involve two friends, doctors, with grisly experiments in reanimation which seemed strongly inspired by Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—the serial “Herbert West—Reanimator.”


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

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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Genevieve K. Sully & Helen V. Sully

Genevieve K. Sully, who wrote to you, is the mother of Helen Sully. Helen met HPL in 1933, and also met Donald [Wandrei]. Donald, in his visit to California, spent much time at the Sully home. HPL’s letters to the Sullys, from what I have seen of them, are marvelous and show a slightly different and most lovable angle of his multi-sided personality, together with amazing knowledge of California history and western sorcery.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 13 Apr 1937, Eccentric, Impractical Devils 255

Genevieve Knoll was born in 1880. She married James O. Sully in 1903, the same year she graduated from the University of California – Berkeley. James Sully is listed in the 1910 U.S. Census as a year older, self-employed, and an English immigrant who had been naturalized. The Sullies had two daughters: Helen V. (b. 1904) and Marion (b. 1911). Not much is known about their life and marriage; the 1920 U.S. Census lists two Genevieve Sullies in California, with daughters Helen and Marion, one in Berkeley (with James as head of household) and one in Auburn (without), and one suspects that they were separated at this point, perhaps for economic reasons (more work in Berkeley)—there are suggestions in Clark Ashton Smith’s letters that Genevieve was splitting her time between Auburn and Berkeley, and was married at least as late as 1925 (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 75). By the time of the 1930 U.S. Census, Genevieve and James were listed as divorced. While in Auburn, the Sullies met a young poet, artist, and day-laborer named Clark Ashton Smith who cared for his two aging parents:

It was in the fall of 1919 that we first met Clark and became interested in his poetry. We were all congenial from the start. We also took many walks in the foothills near Auburn, enjoying the woods, rocks and flowers, Clark Always adding to our love and appreciation of Nature.
—Genevieve K. Sully, Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography 190

Genevieve was 39 in 1919; Clark Ashton Smith was 26. They remained friends—and perhaps more than that—for decades. We get only scattered references to her in Smith’s letters, and a handful of letters to her are reprinted in the Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith, showing that they were close friends and she was an admirer and promoter of his art. While no letters yet published have explicitly referred to a sexual relationship, their acquaintence has long been considered an affair, and at one point he had even made out a last will and testament bequeathing her his library, paintings, and art objects (EID 309). One of her most significant impacts on Smith, as far as weird fiction fans are concerned, was apparently encouraging Smith to write for Weird Tales:

One hot summer—that of 1927—when we were all wilted and tired of the heat, we invited Clark to go with us on a camping trip to the moutnains in the Donner Peak-Summit region. In order to take this trip, CLark had to make complicated arrangements for the comfort of his parents. […] It is hard for anyone to believe the primiaitive way in which the SMiths lived—no running water or electricty, and a kichen stove as the only means of heat and cooking. […]

After a few days of short walks, we proposed a longer walk—to Crater Ridge—where we had gone many times in the past, but now we were going with a companion who came under a spell of strange thought, transforming the scene into a foreboding and grotesque landscape, which Clark later used in his now famous story, “The City of the Singing Flame.” Clark wandered about among the boulders, studying the rocks and general terrain. We could all see that he was deeply affected by the place.

Later in the afternoon while Clark was still feeling a strange influence, after we had sat down to looka t the views which combine to make this place especially beautiful, I suddenly sugested that he use his powers of writing for fiction, which would be more emuneratie than poetry. His financial situation at the time was critical, and some practical advice seemed in order.
—Genevieve K. Sully, Emperor of Dreams: A Clark Ashton Smith Bibliography 190

Whether it was this exact trip or another, something like this certainly happened, for Smith confirmed it:

About eighteen months ago, I was taken to task for idleness by a woman-friend, and pledged myself to industry. Once started, the pledge has not been hard to keep.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c. Jan 1931, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 297

Relatively less is heard of Helen and Marion during this period, though both women graduated highschool and apparently university, with a focus on music. Both of them would also have heard of H. P. Lovecraft, for during one trip Smith read aloud one of his stories to them by campfirelight:

By the way, I read your “Picture in the House” aloud one evening by the light of our campfire in the mountains; and it was received with great enthusiasm by my hostess Mrs. Sully and her daughters.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Aug 1930, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 227

In 1933, Helen was a 29-year old and working as a teacher of music and art at the Auburn highschool, when she decided to take a trip by boat through the Panama Canal, with a stop in Cuba, and then New York, Providence, Quebec, and Chicago for the 1933 World’s Fair. Smith was conscientious to write ahead to Providence and New York so that Helen V. Sully would have a warm welcome.

My aunt & I will be greatly pleased to welcome your friend Miss Sully if she visits Providence, & can undoubtedly display enough historic & antiquarian sights to fill a sojourn of any duration. If the East is new to her, she will find in its many evidences of long, continuous settlement a quite unique fascination.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 14 Jun 1933, DS 420

I think a day will enable Miss Sully to see most of the historic high spots of urban Providence, & I shall be glad to exhibit them when she arrives. Tell her to let me know exact place & date of arrival, & I will be on hand—trusting to ingenuity in establishing identification. When she is in New York she ought without fail to look up the Longs—230 West 97th St. They are in a better position to entertain her than any other “gang” family, having a pleasant apartment, a lavish table, a car, & a servant. Sonny Belknap is one of your staunchest admirers, whatever may be his lapses as a correspondent. The Longs’ telephone is Riverside 9-3465.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Jun 1933, DS 423

I trust Miss Sully’s trip is proving pleasant; & shall, unless contrarily instructed, be on the lookout July 19 at 6 a.m. at the Colonial Line pier . . . . which lies right in the lee of the ancient hill’s southerly extremity, on a waterfront having considerable picturesqueness. The yellow poppy ought to facilitate identification—though it’s too bad you couldn’t have furnished some of your typical nameless vegetation from Saturn & Antares! A second day in Prov. would enable many picturesque suburbs, (& perhaps ancient Newport) as well as the city proper to be covered; thus affording an extremely [good] picture of R.I. I hope that young Melmoth & Sonny Belknap [take] part in displaying seething Manhattan to the visitor—[& if she is] not already provided with Bostonian guidance, I think that [W. Paul] Cook would be delighted to shew off the Athens of America. I [envy] Miss Sully her coming sight of Quebec—to which I fear I can’t get this year, since my aunt’s accident will probably prevent any long absences on my part.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 12 Jul 1933, DS 425-426

Hope I haven’t bored Klarkash-Ton’s gifted emissary with colonial sights. We tried a new boat today–a rival to the old Sagamore. Yr obt Grandsire
Melmoth III
and Helen
—H. P. Lovecraft and Helen Sully to Donald Wandrei, 20 Jul 1933, LWP 306

Elsewhere in his letters, Lovecraft joked that his young friends Frank Belknap Long, Jr. and Donald Wandrei nearly fought a duel over the right to host Miss Sully:

By the way–a very gifted & prepossessing friend of Klarkash-Ton’s in Auburn is touring the east (after a trip through the Panama Canal & to Cuba) for the first time, & looking up his various friends & correspondents….a young gentlewoman, a teacher of music & drawing, named Helen V. Sully. She looked up Wandrei & Belknap in N.Y., & the Longs brought her here in their car when ound for Onset last Wednesday. After seeing Prov. & Newport she has gone on to Gloucester & Quebec. On the return trip she will pass through Chicago & look up Wright–& if you can get down there (about Aug. 8 or 9–I’ll let you known when she decides & notifies me), she would like very much to meet you. Try it if possible.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 23 Jul 1933, Essential Solitude 2.595-596

Sorry you won’t be in Chicago during Miss Sully’s brief stay there–she is an extremely intelligent & prepossessing young person, & Wandrei & Sonny Belknap nearly fought a duel (2 syllables, not rhyming with cool!) over the question of precedence in escorting her about New York during her sojourn in the place. Whether her predetermined tourist itinerary will permit of a side-trip to Sauk City I don’t know, but I’ll pass your invitation on when writing her next momentary address. She gives quite an interesting picture of good old Klarkash-Ton–who would seem to be sorely hadnicapped by poverty, parental dominance, & a generally uncongenial environment.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, late Jul 1933, Essential Solitude 2.598-599

Helen didn’t manage to get to Sauk City to see Derleth, but she met Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright in Chicago before returning home.

news

The Placer Herald, 22 July 1933

The 1933 trip is perhaps more remembered by Lovecraft fans for her brief memoir of the visit, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” (originally published as “Memories of Lovecraft: II” in 1969), where she wrote that he insisted on paying for all the expenses of her brief stay in Providence, despite his economic circumstances…and for one anecdote in particular:

That night, after dinner, he took me down into a graveyard near where Edgar Allan Poe had lived, or was he buried there? I can’t remember. It was dark and he began telling me strange, weird stories in a sepulchral tone and, despite the fact that I am a very matter-of-fact person, something about his manner, the darkness, and a sort of eery light that seemed to hover over the gravestones got me so wrought up that I began running out of the cemetery with him close at my heels, and with the one thought that I must get up to the street before he, or whatever it was, grabbed me. I reached a street lamp trembling, panting, and almost in tears and he had the strangest look on his face, almost of triumph. Nothing was said.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 365-366

She apparently shared this sensation with Lovecraft, as he later wrote to her:

About the hidden churchyard of St. John’s—there must be some unsuspected vampiric horror burrowing down there & emitting vague miasmatic influences, since you are the third person to receive a definite creep of fear drom it….the others being Samuel Loveman & H. Warner Munn. I took Loveman there at midngiht, & when we got separated among the tombs he couldn’t be quite sure whether a faint luminosity bobbing above a distant nameless grave was my electric torch or a corpse-light of less describably origin! Munn was there with W. Paul Cook & me, & had an odd, unacountable dislike of a certain unplaceable, deliberate scratching which recurred at intervals around 3 a.m. How superstitous some people are!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 17 Oct 1933, Letters to Wilfred B. Talman and Helen V. and Genevieve Sully 305

More important, however, was what that visit led to: a correspondence between Lovecraft and the Sullies.

The next day, I left. I wrote to thank Mr. Lovecraft for all his kindness. […] Our correspondence dated from my first letter to him. My impulse was to answer immediately. But he, in turn, always answered almost by return mail. His letters were so voluminous and must have taken so long to write and I felt his talents should be used elsewhere: and always felt guilty that he should spend so much time on me. The result was that I deliberately became less punctual about writing, to my present regret, because I do not think now that I was taking his time from more valuable work. My writing became more and more sporadic, but I think we corresponded up to a time near his death.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 366

The surviving correspondence consists of 25 letters, dating from immediately after Helen’s note of thanks in July 1933 until July 1936. As Clark Ashton Smith said, the letters are full of Lovecraft’s typical erudition, ranging widely in subject, going over his travels and politics, Arthur Machen’s The Hill of Dreams and Howard Wandrei’s artwork among many others. She in turn wrote of her hiking trips and visits to Clark Ashton Smith, her friends and other issues…and, perhaps, opened up to him a little about her inner life.

By mid-1934, Helen had confided to Lovecraft a sense of melancholy or oppression about life—in fact, thoughts of death, and perhaps suicide—exactly what she said is unclear, as we only have Lovecraft’s side of the correspondence, but there is a thread in their correspondence on happiness and the meaning of life where Lovecraft portrays both a sort of objective optimism about life and death, which lasted over a year. The culmination of this line of thought was in 1935, where he seems to quote from her own letters about feeling “hopeless, useless, incompetent, & generally miserable” (LTS 423)—to which Lovecraft responded by pointing out how gifted she was, and how much more miserable he should be in his own circumstances, and finally says:

So—as a final homiletic word from garrulous & sententious old age—for Tsathoggua’s sake cheer up! Things aren’t as bad as they seem—& even if your highest ambitions are never fulfilled, you will undoubtedly find enough cheering things along the road to make existence worth enduring.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Helen V. Sully, 15 August 1935, LTS 431

This is a side of Lovecraft that is rarely seen; the closest point of comparison is probably in 1936 when Lovecraft did his best to keep C. L. Moore occupied after the death of her fiancé. Perhaps it even helped; Helen V. Sully lived a long, full life. In remembering him in 1969, she ended:

Anyone who came into contact with him could not fail to realize that here was a rare and unique person, of great refinement and brilliant intellect, and one who combined the genius which produced his finest writings and the attributes of a true gentleman.
—Helen V. Sully, “Some Memories of H. P. L.” in Ave Atque Vale 366

There is far less to say about the correspondence between Lovecraft and Genevieve K. Sully. Only four letters from Lovecraft to her are known to survive, dating from 1934 to 1937, and Lovecraft may have conveyed respects to her through his letters to Helen V. Sully and Clark Ashton Smith rather than corresponding with her directly for the most part. The 1934 letters apparently were sent to commemorate trips that Mrs. Sully had taken and included gifts including an “elongated, acorn-like object which somewhat baffles my botanical ignorance” (LTS 473)—probably an immature Redwood pine cone. She also reported on Donald Wandrei’s visit to see Clark Ashton Smith in November 1934, during which Wandrei was hosted by the Sullies.

The final letter, dated 7 February 1937, is a belated response to a 1936 Christmas card or letter that Genevieve K. Sully had thought to send to him, and includes a copy of his poem “To Klarkash-Ton, Wizard of Averoigne” and reports on the local cats, and on coming into acquaintence with Jonquil & Fritz Leiber Jr. Perhaps there were other letters, now lost; the genial tone and subjects of the last epistle suggests they might have kept up a sporadic correspondence. Lovecraft signed off with: “Best 1937 wishes for all the househould.—Yrs most sincerely—H. P. Lovecraft” (LTS 487).

Nor did the Sullies forget Lovecraft in later years. Clark Ashton Smith wrote to August Derleth in the 1940s:

Don’t forget my extra copy of Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The one you sent me will go as a slightly overdue birthday gift to Mrs. Sully’s daughter Helen (Mrs. Nelson Best) who met Lovecraft through my introduction back in 1933.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 30 Nov 1943, EID 342

Can you send me another copy of Something About Cats and add it to my bill? I want it for a girl who once met Lovecraft.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 7 Dec 1949, EID 412

Many fans may only know Helen V. Sully as “a girl who once met Lovecraft,” but that rather understates the relationship. Taken together, Lovecraft’s correspondence with Genevieve K. Sully and Helen V. Sully was fairly substantial, and covered aspects of geography and philosophy which he did not broach with any other correspondent. While we can only speculate what it meant to a young woman who felt depressed in her daily life to receive a letter from a kind older man who write to her about cats and to “for Tsathoggua’s sake cheer up!”…perhaps it helped. What more can any human being do for another, when they’re feeling down?

Fourteen letters and postcards to Helen V. Sully were excerpted for volumes IV and V of the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft; all twenty-five pieces of correspondence were published in full, along with the four letters from Genevieve K. Sully, in Letters to Wilfred B. Talman and to Helen V. and Genevive Sully. Several of the original letters can be viewed online.


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

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

Her Letters To Lovecraft: Margaret Sylvester

Dear Miss Sylvester:

[…] Regarding the Necronomicon–I must confess that this monstrous & abhorred volume is merely a figment of my own imagination! Inventing horrible books is quite a pastime among devotees of the weird, & ….. many of the regular W.T. contributors have such things to their credit–or discredit. It rather amuses the different writers to use one another’s synthetic demons & imaginary books in their stois–so that Clark Ashton Smith often speaks of my Necronomicon while I refer to his Book of Eibon..& so on. This pooling of resource stents to build up quite a pseudo-convincing background of dark mythology, legendary, & bibliography–though of course none of us has the least wish actually to mislead readers. ….

Yrs. most cordially & sincerely,

H. P. Lovecraft
—H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, 13 Jan 1934, Selected Letters 4.344-346

Margaret D. Sylvester was born in 1918, which made her fifteen years old when she wrote to H. P. Lovecraft, care of Weird Tales, in late 1933 or early 1934. We know little about her life: at the time she was living in Denver, Colorado with her parents and two younger brothers, no doubt going to school and reading pulp magazines for entertainment. She seems to have had a taste for the macabre, and like many fans that wrote to Lovecraft, found that he wrote back. While we don’t know how regular their correspondence was, Lovecraft included her on his list to mail postcards to during his travels, and on his list of correspondents in his instructions in case of decease.

That letter from 13 January 1934 may well be the first; it has something of the tone of an answer, and questions about the Necronomicon was common early on in correspondence with Lovecraft. A long passage before this discusses the witch-cult and Walpurgisnacht, with Lovecraft borrowing from The Witch-Cult in Western Europe (1921) by Margaret A. Murray in his answer. “The Dreams in the Witch House” had been published in the July 1933 issue of Weird Tales, so perhaps that had precipitated the teenaged Margaret to pen a letter to him, filled with questions.

The best insight we have into Margaret Sylvester’s early correspondence with Lovecraft is in the few letters where he mentions her to others; in particular a long passage from mid-1934:

Am still shudderingly admiring the saponaceous monolith–& before I forget it, let me pass on a request for your charitable sculptorial services which I fancy you may wish to grant. A very bright young western correspondent–a damsel of precisely your own years who wrote me through W.T. & is interested in everything weird, especially art–has seen many of your drawings & the Cthulhu photograph (but not Ganesa), & has heard of your powers in clay-modelling & marionette work. Needless to say, her admiration of the Lord Ghu is boundless. Now it happens that she is herself an inveterate puppeteer, having given performances of “Dracula” & other horrors with figures made by herself; & contemplating such future triumphs as “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde” & “Beauty & the Beast.” Here is where you come in. Filled with respect for your fertile fancy, she will not be content till she gets a hellish clay head of your conception & workmanship for the Beast figure of “Beauty & the Beast.” Evidently she prefers a typically Barlovian nameless Thing to any conventional phiz. I’ve told her to write you direct–but if she doesn’t, & if you think the honour of representation & credit in an undoubtedly clever & probably oft-repeated marionette show would be sufficient reward for the sculptural effort, you’d better drop her a line yourself asking for mechanical particulars & further ideas. Address: Miss Margaret Sylvester, 4515 East 25th Ave., Denver, Colorado. I’d do it if I were you–since such modelling is an intrinsic pleasure. You’ll probably find this kid an interesting correspondent, too–very bright, though not a writer so far as I know. And a great admirer of your cinema hero Singor Lugosi.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 22 Aug 1934, O Fortunate Floridian 166

“Lord Ghu” was one of Lovecraft’s nicknames for Barlow, who had taken to modeling figures in clay, including a tablet-image of Cthulhu and a statue of the Hindu god Ganesha. “Singor Lugosi” would be actor Bela Lugosi, whose filmography included Dracula (1931), Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Chandru the Magician (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Return of Chandru (1934).

As it happened, Barlow declined the project. However, Barlow did agree to loan “Little Maggie” his copy of Gustav Meyrinck’s The Golem, which was currently being read by Catherine Lucille Moore; one can imagine the young Margaret Sylvester’s surprise to get a package from Weird Tales author C. L. Moore in the mail one day. Margaret Sylvester would in turn forward the book to Lovecraft’s correspondent Duane W. Rimel when she was done with it.

In about May 1935, a chain letter was sent to Lovecraft—Margaret Sylvester is the name immediately before Lovecraft’s. He forwarded the chain letter, including a few judicious remarks, to Barlow for his amusement.

So you’ve had several of the chain things come, eh? I’ve seen only two so far–Bro. Hadley’s & Little Maggie’s. The latter child seems to be in the business–indeed, according to press reports it started in her town.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 24 May 1935, O Fortunate Floridian 275

No doubt the letters in 1935 would have included mention of her poetry:

Yearbook_full_record_image

Angelus, 1935 East Side High School Yearbook, page 135

There are some indications that Lovecraft may have recruited Margaret for the National Amateur Press Association c. 1936, but if she ever published her “credential”, it is not known where or when. No doubt the letters from 1934-1936 were filled with a mix of Lovecraft’s typical accounts of news & travel and whatever topics that the two found of interest to share and discuss…such as Margaret Sylvester’s graduation from North Side High School in Denver, Colorado, and her aims at higher education.

You missed little Maggie Sylvester by only a few days, since she set out for the metropolis on the 11th. I’m telling Leedle Meestah Stoiling to extend her a welcome. Her address is now 157 E. 57th St., N.Y.C.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 16 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 360

And little Maggie Sylvester of Denver is in New York for an art course or something–to be addressed at 157 E. 37th St.
H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Sep 1936, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 649

Leedle Meestah Stoiling cut the Harvard Tercentenary in order to stay longer in N Y with his parents. He tried to see little Maggie, but had to proceed to Cambridge before he could find her at home.
H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 30 Sep 1936, O Fortunate Floridian 363

“Leedle Meestah Stoiling” was Kenneth Sterling, another of Lovecraft’s young correspondents, with whom Lovecraft would collaborate on “In the Walls of Eryx.” It is not clear where in New York Margaret Sylvester attended art school, but her 2010 death certificate reads: “Some college credit, but no degee.” so for whatever reason she did not graduate. Perhaps she found a job; we know that in 1940 she married Frank Ronan, and took his name as Margaret Ronan. She was employed by Scholastic Publications as a critic, writer, and editor, publishing both anthologies and nonfiction books with a distinct horror bent aimed at the children/young adult market. In 1971 she edited The Shadow over Innsmouth and Other Stories of Horror, which may have been many a teen’s first introduction to Lovecraft, and there she wrote:

With his correspondents, Howard Lovecraft could relax. His letters, written in tiny, crabbed writing, are full of sly humor. Instead of a return address and a date, they could bear such headings as “Black Marsh of Gthath, Hour that the Ooze Stirs,” or “Black Cylinder Floating between Two Universes, Hour of the Burning Galaxy.” In one letter he sent to me, he refers to a description of himself given by a mutual friend: “As it happens, several points in Mr. Sterling’s word-picture are misleading. It is out of my right, not left shoulder that the ropy tentacles grow. What grows out of the left shoulder is one of my four eyeless heads. This head is not to be confused with the one growing out of my right elbow (the one with the green fangs).”
Margaret Ronan, “A Word to the Reader”

An extract from a single letter to Margaret Sylvester (13 January 1934) was published in Lovecraft’s Selected Letters IV. Arthur S. Koki obviously contacted Margaret Ronan, because he cites and quotes from several of her letters in his 1962 M.A. thesis “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings.” Most of these are fairly small and give little of the flavor of their correspondence, but two fragments stand out, the first on the death of Robert E. Howard (which occurred on 11 June 1936) and the second on the issue of marriage:

I doubt whether there was any definite cause aside from Mrs. Howard’s approaching death. As I see it, it was simply the disastrous combination of a certain kind of temperament with one sharp blow. Probably it would never have occurred if good old Two-Gun hadn’t been watching sleepless by his mother’s bedside for endless weeks. He was nervously & physically exhausted by those weeks of overwork, sleeplessness & tension–brooding deeply (as shown by poems like ‘The Tempter’) even though putting up a brave front to the outside world. Then came despair–& the consciousness that the fight for his mother’s life was hopeless. With no energy to resist the shock–no fund of healthy life-clinging, nerve-twisting strain–poor REH reacted in what must have seemed the shortest & simplest way. And what a damned shame! But of course I suppose general temperament was a factor. Despite his violent, assertive contempt for the “artistic attitude,” Two-Gun was essentially of the neurotic aesthetic type–that is, a person filled with imaginative concepts of certain conditions unrelated to reality which he would like to see around him, & correspondingly resentful of the pressure of the actual world.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, October 1936, Koki 298-299

I do not regard marriage as a social superfluity, but believe it has extreme stabilizing value in the organization of a state Its advantages are numerous & varied–& are indeed so apparent to the unbiased anthropologist that even Soviet Russia (where no traditional institution is kept up for tradition’s sake alone) is beginning to urge its systematic maintenance & more faithful & universal practice.
H. P. Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester, n.d. (Jan 1937?), Koki 212

Presumably, most of the surviving letters from Lovecraft to Margaret Sylvester are in private hands. It is known that there are three letters at the John Hay Library, including the full 13 January 1934 letter that is excerpted in the Selected Letters. Also included is a letter believed to date from February 1937—one of the last letters that Lovecraft would write—with the address given as “Cave of the Crumbling Bones.” A copy of this letter was in the collection of actor Christopher Lee, who brought it out during the episode “Demons” on the series 100 Years of Horror (1996).

We can only speculate how much the correspondence with Lovecraft shaped a young Margaret Sylvester’s life. No doubt she was already on her macabre path, but no doubt too that he gave her encouragement to pursue those interests.


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

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

Deeper Cut: Hugo Gernsback

Unfortunately, the prevailing approach in science fiction studies has been to dismiss the Gernsback magazines as embarrassingly simplistic, tasteless, and even detrimental to the eventual emergence of a mature literature. This is an ironic and all-too-casual judgment of a Jewish immgirant who throughout his life was in search of the respect as a technologist and editor that always seemed to elude him. A certain tone seems to have been set early on by the spectacularly racist H. P. Lovecraft’s moniker for Gernsback: “Hugo the Rat.”
—Grant Wythoff, The Perversity of Things (2016), 8-9

Hugo Gernsback is a central figure in the development of science fiction pulp magazines and on science fiction fandom. His direct dealings with Lovecraft were very few, mostly limited to the purchase of “The Colour Out of Space,” which ran in the September 1927 issue of Gernsback’s magazine Amazing Stories. Yet Gernsback’s reputation among Lovecraft and his circle of correspondents was low, and the moniker “Hugo the Rat” which Lovecraft coined has continued to stick, in fan-circles and to a degree among scholars, for decades.

Hugo Gernsback was Jewish; H. P. Lovecraft was an antisemite. Many readers and even scholars might take it as a given that Lovecraft’s prejudices were at play in his antipathy to Gernsback, and there is some truth to that. The real history of why and how this antipathy came about is a bit more complicated than it might first appear, and Lovecraft was not the only pulp writer involved with Gernsback in the series of exchanges that turned Hugo Gernsback into “Hugo the Rat.”

It’s not a pretty history; the most critical events in this narrative take place against Hitler and the Nazi’s rise to power in Germany in 1933, and antisemitic language in the period letters will be presented as it was, uncensored. Reader discretion is advised.

Gernsbacher & Modern Electronics

Hugo Gernsbacher was born in Luxembourg in 1884, into a Jewish family. His father was a successfull wine wholesaler and Hugo had been educated by private tutors, able to read, write, and speak German, French, and English fluently, and had attended L’Ecole Industrille et Commerciale in Luxembourg and the Technikum in Bingen, Germany. Before the age of 18 he had developed a significant amount of practical experience with electricity (even receiving a papal dispensation to complete the telephone wiring of a Carmelite convent), and had a penchant for invention. In 1904 at age 19, the industrious young man emigrated to the United States of America and simplified his name to Hugo Gernsback.

For the next several years, Gernsback was notable as an electrical experimenter, inventer, and businessman. The full scope of his engineering and business enterprises is too long to go into here, but chief among them was co-founding the Electro Importing Company in 1905, the foundation of Modern Electronics magazine in 1908, and the creation of the Wireless Association of America in 1909. Gernsback encouraged amateur experimentation with electricity and especially with early radio, profited from the sale of wireless sets and other components, helped spread technical knowledge of electricity and radio, and invested his profits in further developments of the technology.

Modern Electronics was Gernsback’s first magazine. Nominally, Modern Electronics was a mail-order catalog for the Electro Importing Company, but it carried much more than a list of goods for sale and their prices. The magazine was designed for the amateur enthusiast, full of practical technical knowledge in plain English, with the occasional fiction clearly marked and entertaining. Gernsback’s first science fiction novel was Ralph 124C 41+serialized in the pages of Modern Electronics from 1911-1912.

In 1913, Gernsback began publication of a new magazine, The Electrical Experimenter, which dropped the catalog and focused on a combination of science fact and fiction. Modern Electronics continued until 1914, when it was merged with Electrician and Mechanic (1890-1014) to form Modern Electrics and Mechanics—which in 1915 changed its title to Popular Science Monthly, which is still published today.

By 1915, the Electrical Experimenter was published through Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company. Hugo’s older brother Sidney Gernsback had emigrated to the United States and joined his brother’s businesses c.1913. In addition to the magazine, Experimenter Publishing published a number of correspondence courses for electricity, and proved successful enough that he introduced a new magazine, Radio News, in 1919. “Scientific stories” (science fiction) had their place in the Electrical Experimenter as well, and Gernsback encouraged the readersamateur experimenters, mostly—to imagine new possibilities and write and submit stories. In 1920, the Electrical Experimenter became Science and Invention, but the solicitation of science fiction continued despite the new title.

Science fiction already existed, but Hugo Gernsback was set to popularize it.

Lovecraft & Amazing Stories

If there is one issue that clings closest to the memory of Hugo Gernsback it is that he was very bad at paying authors.
—Mike Ashley & Robert A. W. Lowndes, The Gernsback Days (2004), 123

Pulps like The All-Story had been running “scientific romances,” such as Edgar Rice Burroughs novels of John Carter of Mars, since the 1910s. In 1920, the Argosy and All-Story combined to form The Argosy All-Story; the consolidated magazines meant one less market for prospective science fiction in the pulps.

Weird Tales was founded in 1923, and H. P. Lovecraft quickly found a place in the magazine, making several sales to editor Edwin Baird and owner J. C. Hennenberger. The first year or so of the magazine was unstable, with an irregular schedule and changes in size and format; in 1924 the magazine was reorganized. Baird was out, and Farnsworth Wright assumed the editorial role. While still favoring Lovecraft, Wright was more cautious in what he would buy, and would end up rejecting many of Lovecraft’s stories—but Weird Tales did run science fiction on occasion, putting it into slight competition with Science and Invention.

In 1924, Gernsback tested the waters for a new, all-science fiction pulp magazine, with the proposed title Scientifiction. Response was lukewarm, and the idea was set aside as Gernsback focused his attention and money on a new project—WRNY, a radio station (with occasional television broadcasts) which raised its antenna in 1925. Once the station was successful,  Amazing Stories was issued by Hugo Gernsback’s Experimenter Publishing company beginning in 1926. It was the first pulp magazine devoted entirely to science fiction (“scientifiction”), although the term was so new and ill-defined that could mean almost anything; Amazing’s first issue included stories from H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Edgar Allan Poe. In practical business terms, however, instead of per-word rates Gernsback and Amazing Stories preferred to pay on a per-story basis. Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes noted in The Gernsback Days (123-130) that the rates Gernsback offered were reminiscent of the many writing contests his magazines would run with cash prizes for the winners, ranging fro $100 to $1.

It is difficult to talk about exact rates, since Amazing Stories seemed to negotiate on a per-piece basis except when it had contracted for a number of stories at once, but it appears short stories typically went for up to $50, and novels for $100. Depending on the exact wordcount, this could be either very fair or very bad. For example, if a 1,000 word “short” story sold to Amazing for $50, then ther effective per-word rate of 1/2¢ per word—the “average” rate for Weird Tales (cf. The Weird Tales Story 2)—not terrible if a pulp writer has no where else to place a science fiction story, and possibly good if they can turn out several short pieces in quick succession, but you would rarely reach Weird Tales’ top rate of 1¢ or 1.5¢ per word…and Weird Tales’ rates were relatively low compared to other pulps. If a 60,000 word novel is sold to Amazing for $100, however, the effective per-word rate is 1/6th of a cent per-word, below Weird Tales‘ lowest rate—and that was the price Gernsback paid to reprint H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds in Amazing Stories Aug-Sep 1927 (The Gernsback Days 125).

In March 1927, H. P. Lovecraft had completed “The Colour Out of Space,” a 12,000-word novelette (Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 127). By June, it had been submitted and accepted by Amazing Stories (DS 134). Lovecraft duly reported this to his friends, which occasioned a bit of scuttlebutt:

Congratulations on having sold “The Colour Out of Space”. I wish it had been W.T., because Amazing Stories pays poorly, and is not going so well as its backers believed it would. But it will probably extend your audience by some thousands.
—Donald Wandrei to H. P. Lovecraft, 6 July 1927, LWP 136

As for “The Colour Out of Space”—Wandrei tells me that Amazing Stores doesn’t pay well, so that I’m sorry I didn’t try Weird Tales first.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 15 July 1927, DS 136

There are a few things to unpack here: first, we have no idea where Wandrei was getting his information on Amazing Stories. None of his own fiction appeared in its pages up to 1927. The second is that “it is not going so well”—this is a point that Ashley & Lowndes delve into in The Gernsback Days, and it is true that Hugo Gernsback claimed that Amazing Stories was not yet on a paying basis in 1927, despite a circulation in excess of 100,000 (much more than Weird Tales)…and came to the conclusion that Hugo Gernsback was using the profits from his magazines to fund his lifestyle and prop up his radio station WRNY (130-132).

What this meant in practical terms was that in 1927 the rates per story were low:

Amazing Stories, being still in its infant stage, our rates per story are hardly based on the story’s merit—rather on the extent of our budget for the year. Our rates for short stories just now range from $15 to $30 per story…
Amazing to Edmond Hamilton, 28 Sep 1927, quoted in The Gernsback Days 129

So whomever was the source of Wandrei’s data on Amazing Stories, it jived with what Amazing was telling its own authors. There are a two more points which are tied up together: payment was supposed to be on publication, and both Wandrei and Lovecraft suggest that Lovecraft tried “The Colour Out of Space” on Amazing first, instead of Weird Tales. This is significant because of a point of confusion that arose later:

“Colour out of Space” was sent to Gernsback because of Wright’s rejections of other things which L. esteemed, and in anger at this! It brought only $25.00, and that after three dunning letters!
—R. H. Barlow, “Memories of H. P. Lovecraft” (1934), O Fortunate Floridian! 404

Here, Lovecraft’s friend Barlow appears to be misinformed—Lovecraft apparently did not send “Colour” to Farnsworth Wright at Weird Tales—and he suggests that Lovecraft was not paid promptly. This latter issues seems to be confirmed by other letters:

The cheque ought to be very respectable, since the text covered 32 pages.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, June or July 1927, Essential Solitude 1.98

[…] “The Colour Out of Space” appears in the current Amazing Stories. They sent me two copies of the magazine, but I am still awaiting my cheque.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1927, LWP 143

Speaking of payment—beware of Amazing Stories! I haven’t received anything yet for “The Colour out of Space”, & shall have to make inquiries soon.
—H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, November 1927, Essential Solitude 1.114

Amazing Stories has just promised to remit before the end of this month—though I fear, from what everyone tells me of their rates, that it won’t be an impressive sum.
H. P. Lovecraft to August Derleth, 13 Jan 1928,Essential Solitude 1.125

[…] I haven’t forgotten that his skinflint magazine gave me only $25.00 (& that after long months & repeated requests!) for a story (“The Colour Out of Space”) of the same length as one for which Weird Tales paid me $165.00.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Lillian D. Clark, 10 May 1928, LFF 2.655

$25.00 at 12,000 words works out to a little over 1/5¢ per word—the other story that Lovecraft mentions is “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales Feb 1928), which at 11,200 words was being paid the top rate of 1.5¢ per word. So even if Barlow was incorrect about Lovecraft submitting “Colour” to Weird Tales, all the other particulars check out…and we can well imagine Lovecraft begrudging the “skinflint” magazine that paid him so little, and so late.

We can only speculate for Amazing’s part of the whole business. $25 would have been just in line with the rates quoted in the 1927 letter to Hamilton; and in keeping with their general policy of paying relatively low rates for fiction. The lateness of the payment could be anything from a clerical error, unethical business practices, or a temporary shortage of funds…we have no idea. What we do know is that Lovecraft wasn’t the only one: creditors were piling up, and authors were going unpaid:

I never collected a single payment on time, and when it got so that they ran several months behind, and I had a tip they were on the verge of bankruptcy and changing hands, I quit.
A. Hyatt Verrill to Forrest J. Ackermann, quoted in The Gernsback Days 132

What’s notable is at this point Lovecraft was not directing any animosity at Hugo Gernsback, either as the magazine’s publisher or as a Jew. Lovecraft’s letters from this period don’t mention Gernsback, which is easily understandable when Lovecraft wouldn’t have been dealing with him at all, but with the editor C. A. Brandt. Whatever the case, Lovecraft made no effort to submit to Amazing Stories again.

Clark Ashton Smith & Wonder Stories

Hugo Gernsback’s creditors moved in, and in 1929 they forced Experimenter Publishing into bankruptcy. This was the end of Hugo Gernsback’s involvement with Amazing, but not Amazing Stories itself:  the creditors re-invested in the company, recognizing the sci-fi pulp as a viable business, and Amazing would outlast Gernsback and the pulp era.

For his part, Hugo Gernsback was not done with science fiction. As the bankruptcy was proceeding, Gernsback was already planning three new magazines: Radio-Craft, Air Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Stories. The two new publishing companies, Stellar Publishing and Techni-Craft Publishing, were family affairs, with his brother Sidney, with his wife Dorothy and her sister Harriet Kantrowitz. David Lasser, the son of Russian Jewish immigrants and a recent M.I.T. graduate, became editor. Lasser knew little of science fiction, but he knew science and writing, and Hugo Gernsback still saw his magazines as primarily educational as well as entertaining.

In addition to regular monthly magazines, Amazing Stories had published a companion quarterly issue; Stellar Publishing continued this practice with Science Wonder Stories and also issued a Science Wonder Quarterly from Fall 1929 to Spring 1930; in May 1930 Air Wonder Stories and Science Wonder Stories merged into a single magazine titled Wonder Stories, and Science Wonder Quarterly became Wonder Stories Quarterly. In that last Spring 1930 issue of Science Wonder Quarterly before the merger took place, Lovecraft’s friend Frank Belknap Long, Jr.’s story “The Thought Materializer” appeared.

As for Wonder Storieshave you seen anything of Belknap’s in that lately? He had one story accepted, but has not been paid—hence assumed that it had not appeared. Dwyer, however, says he distinctly recalls such a tale 2 or 3 months ago—though his memory is indistinct about it. The matter forms quite an enigma. Apparently Gernsback continues his old financial habits in his new company!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 23 Jun 1930, DS 220

Thanks for the definite information about Belknap’s tale in the Wonder Stories Quarterly. I had just received a letter from the firm stating that they had never carried any Long story in any of their publications, when your news arrived. I at once wrote again—& finally they admitted that the tale was published. I have now sent a half dollar for the magazine, & am hoping for the best. Meanwhile Belknap has received no cash. Undoubtedly this Gernsback outfit is something which it is well to have as little as possible to do with!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 17 Jul 1930, DS 222-223

What you tell me about Belknap’s experience with the Gernsback crowd is indeed amazing. I don’t see how they do business on a basis of that sort. Certainly Dr. Keller, Arthur B. Reeve, Starzl, and a lot of other people whose work they use aren’t writing just for the glory of seeing their names in print. I suppose their game is to cheat the more obscure or occasional contributors, if they can “get away” with it. There ought to be some way of getting at them. Anyway, let me know how the affair works out! They have not yet reported on my “Andromeda” (after nearly two months) and I am writing to make a rather curt inquiry.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 30 Jul 1930, DS 224

I’ve lately received the Wonder Quarterly with Belknap’s tale, but he has not yet heard from the editors despite a fresh inquiry on his part a fortnight ago. As you suggest, it probably takes real prominence to get satisfactory dealings from the Gernsback organisation! Good luck with “Andromeda”!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 6 Aug 1930, DS 225

Clark Ashton Smith had achieved early recognition as a poet in California, but had never been able to translate that into financial success. Living with his aged parents and doing considerable seasonal work to make ends meet, Smith was able to sell several stories and poems to Weird Tales in the 1920s, and determined to try his hand as a full-time pulpster, sending stories to several outfits, including Wonder Stories and another Gernsback magazine, Amazing Detective Storiesand his stories were accepted.

What had changed from Lovecraft’s initial encounter with Amazing is that Wonder Stories could not be differentiated from Hugo Gernsback; the bankruptcy had thrust his name prominently into the news in science-fiction and science-fiction fandom circles. While the market for science fiction pulps was now growing, with fiercer competition, Lovecraft and Smith were focusing on Hugo Gernsback as the personality behind Wonder Storiesnot the editor David Lasser. This was a very different relationship than both men had with Weird Tales and its editor Farnsworth Wright.

As it happened, though Smith was cautious, Wonder Stories bought “Andromeda” at 3/4¢ per word (not great, but not bad either), and sent a check promptlywith a request for more. Smith conveyed this information to Lovecraft…with one more note:

By the way, the Gernsback outfit has just remitted a sizable check ($90.00) for “Andromeda”, and they seem anxious to see the new story, which I am now submitting. They may have taken me for a compatriot, from the tone of my letter to them! And they are saying to each other, “We will not bamboozle our Jewish brother even if we could.”
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Sep 1930, DS 232-233

In some previous letters to Smith, Lovecraft had made some antisemitic remarks regarding Jewish people in New York, so Smith may have felt “safe” in expressing this opinion. As it happens, this is the first reference in the extant letters that either Smith or Lovecraft made to the Wonder Stories staff being Jewish. Explicit here is the stereotype of Jewish greed or unethically sharp business practice; certainly uncalled for considering that Smith had been paid in full and fairly promptly.

Smith needed the money and was happy to write if they would buy, though the relationship was not always so enthusiastic. No one else could write like Smith, his poetic language and prodigious vocabulary were inimitable, and his mind tended more toward the weird and horror than to bright shining futures or action-adventure space operas. Editorial requests from Lasser thus brought about a bit of friction:

The Jews want some more “ekshun” in the first part of “The Red World”, which they criticize as being “almost wholly descriptive”. It looks as if they were trying to compete with “Astounding Stories.”
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c. 21 Oct 1930, DS 251

Astounding Stories had begun publication in January 1930, an immediate competitor to both Amazing Stories and Science Wonder Stories, and those three magazines would top the science fiction pulp market for the rest of the 1930s. The syndication of the Buck Rogers comic strip in 1929 spurred readers interest for space opera, and the pulps responded; Smith himself was asked to write such stories, and his Captain Volmar tales “Marooned in Andromeda” (Wonder Stories Oct 1930) and “A Captivity in Serpens” (Wonder Stories Quarterly Summer 1931, under the title “The Amazing Planet”) are examples of this type. However, action (“ekshun” to mimic a New York Yiddish accent phonetically) was not Smith’s strong type…and Lovecraft was not one to correct Smith about “the Jews.”

So Meester Gernspeck vants someding more should heppen by de “Red Voild” a’ready! Oy, should ah poor men pay oudt good money by ah story vere efferyding stend still ent dunt say it nuddings? I fear that I shan’t find the gentleman’s periodical much of a haven for my stuff—though he did take my “Colour Out of Space” in the old Amazing days . . . . paying all of 25 dollars like the generous philanthropist he is!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 30 Oct 1930, DS 252

Which reminds me that I am beginning another Volmar yarn for the Jews—“Captives of the Serpent.” I’ll give them their “action” this time!!!
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, 10 Nov 1930, DS 266

I hope I may soon see “Captives of the Serpent”, in spite of the specially ordered overdoses of “ekshun”. Which reminds me that young Belknap is meditating a complaint to the Author’s League concerning the dishonesty of Meestah Goinspeck’s outfit. They haven’t paid him a cent for his story of last spring, & utterly ignore the courteous inquiries he has written them. I advise him to make a final try for payment by sending Gernsback an advance carbon of his letter to the League—announcing that the original will be despatched if no satisfactory word is received within five days.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, Nov 1930, DS 268

I am glad that Belknap is planning to bring a complaint against that gang of Yiddish highbinders.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, c 17 Nov 1930, DS 271

The rhetoric was already getting very acerbic. Perhaps encouraged by Lovecraft’s response, Smith would begin to write more openly of these prejudices to others as well.

No, I have not signed (and could not be induced to sign) a contact with that Gernsback gang of Yiddish high binders. They merely suggested the writing of a series of astronomical tales, dealing with the adventures of a space-ship and its crew; and they have paid ¾ a cent per word for such material of mine as they have used. My chief grievance against them is that they are putting so many restrictions on my work, and have shown themselves utterly oblivious or disregardful of literary values.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 22 Nov 1930, EID 30

I have been feeling rather punk lately, and have done nothing but hack-work—another piece of junk for the Jews. I’ll recommend the Gernsback outfit for quick action in publishing material—the novelette that I wrote for them in December is out in the issue (April) now on the stands. But if I were a vain person, I’d sue them for criminal libel because of the alleged picture of me that they are using. It makes me look as if I had been on a forty-day debach; of all the cock-eyed caricatures!
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 8 Mar 1931, EID 39

Ashley & Lowndes in The Gernsback Days noted an apparent misapprehension of the situation on the part of Wonder Stories: Lasser thought with his directions and prompts he was helping to develop Smith as an author, while Smith thought he was churning out hackwork for an illiterate bunch of moneygrubbers (173-175). This and other editorial high-handedness such as changing titles arbitrarily were slowly alienating Smith from Wonder Stories.

Yet they continued to pay in full and on time, so Smith kept writing. However, at this point the idea of Gernsback’s personal involvement, his supposed sharp business practices, and the lack of any pushback on antisemtic comments meant that the latter were continuing to spread:

Glad “Beyond the S.F.” landed with Shylock ben Gernsback. I shall have my eyes open for the Novr. W.S.—for I must own this tale, in conjunction with its predecessor.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 11 Sep 1931, DS 322

Beginners have far more chance with the Shylock Gernsback outfit-chance to “land”, that is, not chance of getting prompt or adequate remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to J. Vernon Shea, 13 Sep 1931, Letters to J. Vernon Shea 49

“The City of the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories July 1931) and its sequel “Beyond the Singing Flame” (Wonder Stories Nov 1931) by Clark Ashton Smith are two genuine classics of the period, but Lovecraft’s depiction of Gernsback as quite literally the stereotype of a greedy Jew show that he was fixed on Gernsback as personally responsible for both his own issues with Amazing Stories and Frank Belknap Long’s issue with Science Wonders Quarterly. Isolated incidents and existing prejudice had come together…and then there began to be a delay of payments.

Too bad about the delay in your checks. Even at that, the Clayton system is vastly preferable to that of Gernsback, who doesn’t seem to have any time-limit at all on the settlement of arrears. The blighter still owes me about 250 djals.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 10 Feb 1932, EID 97

Gernsback has taken a hunk of tripe, The Invisible City, which is scheduled for appearance in the June Wonder Stories. They certainly take the palm for promptness in printing accepted matter—but they make up for it on the payment end.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 15 Mar 1932, EID 105

As it happened, circumstances weer a bit different than when Amazing Stories began delaying payments in the late 1920s. The Wall Street Crash of 1929 which started the Great Depression took time to hit the pulp market, but it did; Weird Tales suffered considerable delays in paying authors after its bank closed, owing some authors hundreds of dollars (see Scott Connor’s “Weird Tales and the Great Depression” in The Robert E. Howard Reader for details).

In December 1932, the bank for Stellar Publishing closed, delaying payments to many authors, including Smith. The problem was compounded by in mid-1932 when the Eastern Distributing Corporation, which was the distributor for Wonder Stories, went bankrupt. The result was that Gernsback’s publishing companies likely lost a vast chunk of money, taking a substantial hit to their liquidity (The Gernsback Days 202-203). Nevertheless, Smith continued to sell to Wonder Stories in the hopes of being paid.

Gernsback has written to tell me that he can’t pay for any of my material at present, since he claims to have lost huge sums of money through the bankruptcy of a firm that had been distributing his magazines. All this helps to make the financial outlook as bright and sunny as a cloud of sepia fifty fathoms down in the undersea.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 5 Apr 1933, EID 171

Assessments of Gernsback/Wonder Stories in the letters of Lovecraft & co. were not uniformly negative during 1932-1933, but were often hedged with casual antisemitism, e.g.:

Glad the Invisible City is due in the near future, & that Gernsback has some appreciation of what he is offering. It’s odd, but in spite of that damn’d kike’s financial remissness & sharp dealings, I really think he offers a better & more vital range of scientifiction than either of his two competitors. He is not quite so rigid in his demand for the commonplace & the stereotyped.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 4 Apr 1932, DS 360

The Chance story offers infinite possibilities. And so the eckshun-luffing management of W.S. suggested the idea! I’m hanged if those damn kikes aren’t brighter & more sensible in many ways than the philistines controlling Astounding & the technologists in charge of Amazing! Really, there is little doubt but that Wonder is the most generally interesting of the scientifiction magazines. Sorry the space-limit has gone down so annoyingly.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 27 Aug 1932, DS 381

As to Wonder Stories, I am somewhat in a quandary. I can recommend the mag. For ultra-prompt publication of material; but they seem to make up for it on the payment end. They have, so far, paid for seven of my stories at ¾ of a cent per word, but are in arrears on the last five or six, and protest their inability to pay at present together with their anxiety to do so. I don’t know whether to gamble any more stuff on them or not, since I more than suspect that they are capable of sharp dealing. My worst apprehension is that old Hugo may pull another bankruptcy stunt, as he did with Amazing Stories several years back. Undoubtedly the magazine—Wonder Stories—is having a hard time just at present. Their treatment of Belknap is pretty raw, I’d say. The chief reason that I’ve had anything to do with them is, that Gernsback has had the perspicacity to print some of my more out-of-the-way stuff which no one else would touch. And I have had, after all, about five hundred bucks out of the old highbinder.
—Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 10 Nov 1932, Selected Letters 195-196

The final straw for Smith came with “The Dweller in the Gulf,” published in Wonder Stories march 1933 as “The Dweller in the Martian Depths.” In addition to changing the title, the editors had taken a hacksaw to Smith’s prose and bowdlerized the ending. Editor David Lasser wrote to Smith that the changes had been made “at Gernsback’s express order” (DS 408)—and Smith would submit no more to the magazine, which already owed him over six hundred dollars, although two previously submitted stories would still be published after this.

Hazel Heald & Hugo the Rat

I suppose Gernsback is still withholding ‘eckshun’ on his debts. One of my clients is about to write an indignant letter to the Authors’ League concerning his financial shortcomings—though I imagine its effect will be close to zero.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 2 Feb 1933, DS 403

Yes—my Gernsback-mulcted client is Mrs. Heald—whose story was nothing extra, although it surely deserved some remuneration.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, c.10 Feb 1933, DS 404

“The Man of Stone” by Hazel Heald had been published in Wonder Stories Oct 1932. On 30 January 1933, Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany. Even at that point, Hitler and the Nazis were a byword for antisemitism, and while few may have believed the full extent of Hitler’s plans in Mein Kampf, which would see its first abridged English translation published in October 1933, the rhetoric was clear…and influential.

I await sight of the “Weaver” & “Flower Women” with keen interest, & shall try to get sight of the misnamed “Secret of the Cairn” in Hugo the Rat’s kosher mekasin. Hope his ekshun on debts won’t be delayed beyond all reason—I’d like to set Adolf Hitler on the scoundrel!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 8 Apr 1933, DS 414

As for Hugo the Rat—probably he’s waiting for the dollar to get as low as the German mark did in the early 1920’s. Then—oy, he shood pay it up by his condribudors a’ready!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 May 1933, DS 415

This is the first appearance of the epithet “Hugo the Rat.” Whether this was in a reference to Gernback’s “greedy” nature or an allusion to his Jewishness is unclear; Lovecraft had elsewhere referred to “rat-faced Jew[s]” (LFF 1.256) and Jewish “rat-like temperaments” (LWP 84), so either is feasible. However Lovecraft intended, the nickname stuck.

Unrestricted prejudice, stereotypes, and delay or denial of payments to Lovecraft, Smith, and their friends and clients had soured both men on Hugo Gernsback, who they now held personally to blame for a situtation which might honestly have been somewhat out of his hands to control, as the Great Depression worsened and Wonder Stories began to make economic cuts in length, and moved to a bi-monthly rather than monthly schedule.

Incidentally—I’ve passed on to him, & will pass on to Mrs. Heald, the information about the bad-debt collector. This certainly sounds promising, & I hope you yourself can ultimately employ her to advantage. Anyone who can extract cash from Hugo the Rat is an expert!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 12 Jul 1933, DS 425

Yes, I have heard that Gernsback has a doubtful reputation in matters of payment. Though I disapprove strongly of the Hitler regime, I think that it might be administered, not unjustifiably, on a Jewish gyp and literary sweat-shop keeper such as H. G. I have a suspicion that he may try another of his bankruptcy stunts before long. I have the address of a lawyer in N.Y. who is said to be good at collecting money from backward publishers and shall at least try holding the threat of legal action over Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to Donald Wandrei, 6 Aug 1933, Selected Letters 218

The lawyer in New York City was Ione Weber, a female attorney. Not much is publicly available on her career; she was a charter member of the Fiorello LeGaurdia chapter of Phi Delta Delta at the Brooklyn Law School in 1922, and in 1924, Ione Weber was listed editor of the magazine for Phi Delta Delta operating out of the Eagle Building in NY, and she is listed as author of New York Pleading and Practice (1930). It’s not clear if Weber was in normal practice, or part of a firm, but being asked to recoup relatively small claims from a pulp publisher suggests she must have had some other source of income. Still, she apparently had some success:

Hope Miss Webber [sic] has been able to collect you something from Hugo the Rat—as she has for Mrs. Heald. Hugo still manages to get decent stuff in spite of his delinquencies—I don’t buy W S now, but Comte d’Erlette has just sent me a fine story by Carl Jacobi—“The Tomb from Beyond”—clipped from the November issue. If you haven’t seen it I’ll send it to you.
—H. P. Lovcraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 29 Nov 1933, DS 483

Some magazines pay much less—especially Wonder Stories, whose editor Gernsback is a veritable Shylock. Hugo the Rat (as Clark Ashton Smith & I affectionately call him) never pays at all except under pressure—in fact, one New York lawyer makes a speciality of Gernsback bad debt collection!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 13 Jan 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 25

A woman lawyer in New York—a Miss Weber, whose address I’ve forgotten but who could be located through Clark Ashton Smith—makes a speciality of collecting bad debts from Gernsback, & actually did extort $35.00 from him on behalf of a revisions lenient of mine. I’d probably try something on the old reprobate just for the fun of it if I had any unsold MSS. of the right length & character!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 15 Jan 1934, LPS 298

Searight’s story “The Cosmic Horror” had appeared in Wonder Stories Aug 1933, and he had not been paid, hence Lovecraft’s advice. Clark Ashton Smith dithered as he contemplated legal action. Lovecraft, who had no skin in this particular game since he had settled accounts with Amazing Stories, encouraged him to act.

I am, by the way, giving the Gernsback outfit a broad hint that some legal action will be forthcoming unless they pay up a good installment of their arrears at an early date. Wandrei recommends Nat Schachner, one of the star scientifictionists, as a capable lawyer for such collections. Schachner must have had some experience with old Hugo, since he contributed a number of stories to W.S. some time back. I must admit that the idea of setting a Jew to catch a Jew is one that appeals to me. But, on the whole, I’d prefer to collect something without legal bother and expense, if I can.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Mar 1934, DS 535

Let us hope you can eventually arrange to get something out of Hugo the Rat. Eh deedn’t know it Meestah Schechner vass ah smart lawyer a’ready. Oy! He shood make Hugo pay det money ef he hass to boin his shop to get it!
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 9 Mar 1934, DS 540

I think seriously of putting the collection of my arrears from Gernsback in the hands of a New York lawyer before long. That Yiddish highbinder makes me boil. I have it on good authority that he draws down one hundred bucks a week for adorning Wonder Stories with his name, while the real editor, doing all the work, receives only twenty per. In rough figures, he owes me about $750.00, representing a lot of blood and sweat, which is too much to lose.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 17 Apr 1934, EID 219

At this point, David Lasser was out as editor of Wonder Stories and Charles D. Hornig, the former editor of The Fantasy Fan and a friend of Lovecraft and Smith, had been installed as editor—so Smith actually did finally have an inside line on Wonder Stories. Gernsback, meanwhile, was seeking to diversify his pulp line with Pirate Stories and High Seas Adventure—and even was contemplating a Weird Tales rival titled True Supernatural Stories. A “dummy issue” of the latter was filed with the Library of Congress to secure rights to the title, and included reprints of of Smith and Lovecraft’s work from The Fantasy Fan; whether they were ever compensated for this is unknown (see Sam Moskowitz’ “The Gernsback ‘Magazines’ That No One Knows” in in Riverside Quarterly v.4, #4).

Finally, Smith took the legal plunge:

I have written to a New York attorney about the little matter of collecting from gernsback. His arrears total $769.00, and I do not intend to be robbed of it all by low-class Jewish business morality.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 16 May 1934, EID 221

Miss Ione Weber, New York attorney, has undertaken the collection of my arrears from Gernsback but does not seem to be overly optimistic about getting anything at an early date. I’m not eager to press the matter with an actual lawsuit: one has to pay the legal expenses in advance, and the lawyer gets 25%, or perhaps even 50% of the proceeds. Oh hell….. I never was very enthusiastic about laws, lawyers, et al.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 4 Jun 1934, EID 222

Miss Ione Weber, the attorney in whose hands I placed the matter of collecting from Gernsback, has evidently not succeeded in compelling him to disgorge, so far. I fear me he’s a hard-boiled Hebrew hellion, if there ever was one; and I’d gladly turn him over to the ministrations of Herr Hitler.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 28 Jun 1934, EID 223

Much to my surprise, the New York attorney, Miss Weber, has succeeded in prying fifty dollars out of Gernsback. This, according to G’s own accounting dept, leaves only $691 more to pay! I hope that I’ll receive at least part of it before the onsent of inflation or the forming of a proletariat government in the U.S.A.
—Clark Ashotn Smith to August Derleth, 22 Jul 1934, EID 225

My lawyer, Miss Weber, succeeded in extracting another 50 from Gernsback; also, a promise to pay the balance of arrears in trade acceptances, at 75 per month.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 29 Sep 1934, EID 237

Liquidity was obviously still an issue with Gernsback’s magazines—launching several new ventures no doubt didn’t help that—but Weber seems to have reached an out-of-court agreement for payments to be made on the debt. A trade acceptance is, effectively, a type of IOU—a bill of exchange acknowledging a debt, which can in turn be sold, traded, or redeemed for cash at a future date. Ashley & Lowndes write:

Ione Weber cautioned Smith that she was “not optimistic about how soon collection can be made. The last few months I have been having more than the usual difficulty in collecting from them.” She explained further. “Gernsback himself told me that these magazines were not paying but made an arrangement with me by which he would pay my other author clients at stated intervals. However, this promise was not kept.”
(The Gernsback Days 243)

Smith wasn’t the only author that Gernsback hadn’t paid. Although Smith did eventually recoup all that he was owed, many more authors went without. Richard F. Searight suggested a joint lawsuit (LPS 226, 330), although nothing came of this. E. Hoffmann Price quoted science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton in a letter to Lovecraft:

You speak of Fantasy being connected, via editor, with Wonder Stories. From all I gather, their rates, when they pay off, are indeed nominal! Something like 1/4 ¢, and rumored but never realized 1/2 ¢ payoffs. I’m afraid I couldn’t spend much time trying to seduce the fancy of an outfit like that—or have I confused them with the nest of vipers assembled under the Gernsbach [sic] standards? Hamilton assures me no one is a scientifiction writer until he has been defrauded at least once by Hugo Gernbach! [sic]
—E. Hoffmann Price to H. P. Lovecraft, 21 Nov 1933, Mss. John Hay Library

In October 1934, Hornig optimistically wrote that Wonder Stories would shortly be able to pay promptly, and repay its past debts…and there are some signs that Gernsback & Wonder Stories was trying to do this (The Gernsback Days 243). Lovecraft wrote of his young Jewish friend Kenneth Sterling:

He has already sold stories to Wonder . . . .& collected from Hugo the Rat (it takes a Yid to catch a Yid!) . . . . & is bubbling over with ideas.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 26 Mar 1935, DS 596

However, more problems lay ahead.

Donald A. Wollheim & Thrilling Wonder Stories

Nofor Jesu’s sake don’t mention that Klarkash-Ton & I call Gernsback “Hugo the Rat.” That would form a thoroughly unjustifiable attack, despite the fact that the damn skunk undoubtedly deserves it!
—H. P. Lovecraft to F. Lee Baldwin, 16 May 1934, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 86

“Hugo the Rat” was a pet name, of the kind that Lovecraft reserved for many. Farnsworth Wright was often “Pharnobozus” or “Farney” in his letters; William Crawford, editor/publisher of the fanzine Marvel Tales, was “Hill-Billy Crawford.” The nicknames were sometimes slightly derogatory, but were basically meant in fun…and in private. Lovecraft never called him “Hugo the Rat” in public, or made any public statement about the financial situation of Gernsback not paying his authors. Others did.

Donald Wollheim published “My Experience with Wonder Stories” was published in the April 1935 Bulletin of the Terrestrial Fantascience Guild. Wollheim’s story “The Man from Ariel” had been published in Wonder Stories Jan 1934, and not paid for. Up to this point, the science fiction fandom aspect of Gernsback’s career hasn’t been terribly relevant, but it should be remembered that it was Gernsback who, pursuing his enthusiasm for amateurs, encouraged science fiction fans to write to oen another by publishing their names and addresses in the pages of Amazing Stories in the 20s, and in 1934 founded a fanclub called the Science Fiction League through Wonder Stories. Now, Wollheim’s public airing of the dirty laundry caused an uproar in fandom, made all the worse when Gernsback banned Wollheim from the Science Fiction League, leading to a splintering in the group (see Up To Now: The ISA-SFL Clash).

Lovecraft commented on the affair, which was still spooling out:

I saw the Wollheim article dealing with Hugo the Rat—through the kindness of a bright young member of the Science Fiction League, Kenneth Sterling, who has recently moved to Providence. It was nothing new to me—for more than one friend of mine has been robbed by that thieving son-of-a-beachcomber. He printed a story by Frank B. Long in the Spring 1930 Wonder Stories Quarterly, & neither paid the author nor gave any attention to letters about the matter. I advised Long to take drastic steps, but he thought the sum wasn’t large enough to bother about. Others I know—including C A S—have recovered cash from the Rat only through legal action. There’s no real answer that Gernsback can make to the Wollheim expose—all he can do is to kep quiet. But his shifty tactics will overreach themselves & wreck him in the end. Meanwhile he relies on suckers, pays two or three contributors whom he can’t afford to lose, & counts on the MSS. of writers who don’t care whether they’re paid or not. I wouldn’t mind a non-paying magazine if the editor would honestly call it such—like the F F [The Fantasy Fan], F M [Fantasy Magazine], & M T [Marvel Tales]. It is his masquerading as a remunerative publisher which makes Hugo such a damn’d thief! Fortunately he is an exception.
—H. P. Lovecraft to William Anger, 24 Apr 1935, Letters to Robert Bloch & Others 233

Regardless of whether the issue of payments was due more to circumstances of the Great Depression or sharp business tactics, Wollheim’s expose and the resulting fan-feuding, coupled with professional pulpsters who now shunned Wonder Stories and other Gernsback magazines, sank Gernsback’s reputation. Eventually, the situation was untenable.

Wonder Stories sold by Hugo the Rat to the Margulies group which Belknap likes so well.
—H. P. Lovecraft to R. H. Barlow, 11 Mar 1936, O Fortunate Floridian! 326

Leo Margulies was the chief editor of Standard Publications, sometimes called “Thrilling Publications” because they published titles like Thrilling Adventures, Thrilling Detective, Thrilling Love, Thrilling Mystery, Thrilling Sports, and Thrilling Western. In August 1936, when they purchased Wonder Stories, Margulies renamed it Thrilling Wonder Stories. Charles D. Hornig was laid off as editor. Hugo Gernsback left science fiction to its own devices for a while.

Although Lovecraft and Gernsback never met, and it isn’t clear if they ever even corresponded, the publisher’s reputation remained with Lovecraft for the short time remaining to him. Even into 1937, barely a month away from death, Lovecraft wrote:

By the way—Hugo Gernsback is a notorious sharper who ought never to be trusted. He tries to sensationalise pseudo-science, and is so dishonest in his non-payment of contributors that reputable authors have virtually blacklisted his magazines.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Nils Frome, 8 Feb 1937, Letters to F. Lee Baldwin 352

If you think the pay is bad, pray be informed that Hugo the Rat often parallelled it in the old days, & that according to some reporters Amazing Stories now does little better.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Richard F. Searight, 14 Feb 1937, LPS 437

In January 1936, Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling collaborated on “In the Walls of Eryx” (Weird Tales Oct 1939), a story which incorporated several punning references to personalities in science fiction pulpdom. There on the jungled Venus they conceived:

I was always slashing ugrats and stepping on skorahs, and my leather suit was all speckled from the bursting darohs which struck it from all sides.

“Ugrats,” “Hugo the Rat.” A bit of a petty immortalization for Gernsback, who despite his infamy in regards to business practice, editorial tastes in science fiction, etc. is still today recognized as a critical figure in the popularization of science fiction, and the namesake of the Hugo Awards.

Conclusion

The question may fairly be asked: Why has “Hugo the Rat” stuck in the consciousness of fans and writers of science fiction history? I suspect that it is Lovecraft’s own posthumous popularity, and the publication of his letters, that have spread the epithet far beyond the limits of personal correspondence that Lovecraft ever intended. Other writers may well have said things as bad or worse about Gernsback, but their letters haven’t been published, studied, or folded into the history of pulp publishing in anything like the same way Lovecraft’s have. I haven’t been able to find any usage of the term in fanzines of the 40s and 50s so far. The epithet was most prominent in volume 5 of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters (1965), and usage of it picks up in science fiction scholarship in the 1970s.

Whether or not you consider “Hugo the Rat” as an antisemitic label or a playful jab at a non-paying publisher, it is undeniable that antisemitic prejudice colored Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith’s views. That the views were expressed particularly sharply in 1933, when Hitler was coming to power and antisemitism was gaining increased traction makes their particular prejudice all the worse, especially in hindsight.

It didn’t start out that way. Which is probably as close as a we might get to a lesson from this episode. This post doesn’t contain every single instance where Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith referred to Gernsback as “Hugo the Rat,” or made an antisemitic comment regarding him; a full list would be tedious rather than informative. Neither Lovecraft or Clark Ashton Smith started out lambasting Hugo Gernsback for being Jewish. One made a comment, the other didn’t censure them for it, and before long the two men were jocularly passing back and forth antisemitic quips that neither would ever air in public. If there is a lesson to this exchange, it’s that allowing prejudice to go unchallenged, even in joking fashion, makes prejudice more acceptable over all…and that has shaped how we see and talk about the past.

Grant Wythoff in The Perversity of Things felt the need to address Lovecraft’s characterization of “Hugo the Rat” because that epithet has become so strongly identified with Gernsback, even though no more than a dozen people likely ever knew Lovecraft said it during his lifetime. The name and characterization have been repeated so many times, that most people assume it was true, and that Hugo Gernsback was a “sharper” who didn’t pay his authors. Of course, Gernsback wasn’t alone in this; Weird Tales faced its own difficulties and delays in paying authors; when Robert E. Howard died in 1936, Farnsworth Wright owed him more than Gernsback ever owed Clark Ashton Smith. While Gernsback certainly exacerbated some of his own troubles in his dealings with Wollheim and other authors, and there were likely poor business decisions that were responsible for delays and nonpayments, it seems likely that much of the negative characterization of Gernsback carries at least a whiff of antisemitism, intentional or unconscious. It is a very weird aspect of Lovecraft’s legacy that this nickname should stick, to a man he never met and had very little to do with directly…but, here we are.

For the facts of Hugo Gernsback’s life and publications, and details on his magazines I have relied primarily on Hugo Gernsback: A Man Well Ahead of His Time (2007) edited by Larry Steckler, and The Gernsback Days (2004) by Mike Ashley and Robert A. W. Lowndes, and recommend them both for learning more about Gernsback’s life and his involvement with science fiction publishing.

A Final Word on Clark Ashton Smith’s Antisemitism

The vermin is a very Jew, and will have his last ounce of brain and marrow.
—Clark Ashton Smith, “The Corpse and the Skeleton” (1965)

While H. P. Lovecraft’s antisemitism is fairly well-documented, with dozens of instances in his letters regarding Jewish persons, race, and religion; the antisemitic comments that Clark Ashton Smith made towards Hugo Gernsback and his company may come as something of a surprise to many readers. Smith’s comments on Jewish people are very few in his published letters, and the bulk of his antisemitic comments were directed solely against Gernsback & co.—with an occasional swipe at other Jewish publishers, e.g.:

I return the Ullman–Knopf communication herewith. Knopf should remove the Borzoi from his imprint, and substitute either the Golden Calf or a jackass with brazen posteriors. I wish Herr Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to H. P. Lovecraft, Oct 1933, DS 456

Too bad about Knopf. I wish Hitler had him, along with Gernsback.
—Clark Ashton Smith to August Derleth, 19 Oct 1933, EID 196

The tone and wording of the comments suggest frustration with publishers in general, which focused in on their being Jewish as a convenient target for abuse—even though their being Jewish had nothing to do with, say, editorial changes in Smith’s tales in Wonder Stories or Knopf turning down a collection of Lovecraft’s fiction.

In terms of fiction, Clark Ashton Smith had very few Jewish characters or references in his fiction, and so few occasions to express any antisemitism. Smith’s usual line was fantasy & horror set in imaginary worlds, and science fiction set in the far future, so references to Jews in his work are rather rare—there is no more need for Jewish characters in Zothique, Atlantis, Xiccaraph, Hyperborea, or Mars than there would be for Christians or Buddhists or run-of-the-mill Satanists—so absence of Jewish characters isn’t particularly unusual or necessarily reflective of antisemitism on Smith’s part.

Those few stories which do feature Jewish characters rely almost entirely on Jewish stereotypes that were old when Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice, the same stereotypes Smith expressed in negative terms in his anti-Gernsback commentary. Clark Ashton Smith’s unpublished story “The Parrot” is the most prominent example, with Ben Stein as a veritable caricature of a “greedy Jew”…and the only good thing that can be said about the sketch is that it wasn’t published until after Clark Ashton Smith’s death.

In general, it must be acknowledged that casual antisemitism was sadly common among many members of the Weird Tales circle; in addition to Lovecraft and Smith, Robert E. Howard and August Derleth at least are also known to have made antisemitic comments in letters. Smith also never (as far as I can find) made any such comments to Jewish correspondents like Robert Bloch or Samuel Loveman. While it is dangerous to generalize, and certainly never a major aspect of any letter, this kind of antisemitic commentary against Jewish publishers appears to have been generally tolerated among the non-Jewish members of the Weird Tales circle of correspondents. This kind of discrimination was no doubt someting that Hugo Gernsback and other Jews in the United States faced frequently during the 1930s.


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

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

The Rainbow Vol. I, No. 1 (Oct. 1921) & Vol. II, No. 2 (May 1922) by Sonia H. Greene (ed.)

Also, she hath told him that I am egotistical from reading Nietzsche—which disturbeth me not in the least. Anybody can call me anything he damn pleases if he will give fifty sinkers to the organ fund & issue a United paper as good as the RAINBOW promises to be! […] By the way—I have just returned proofs of my RAINBOW article, which is a melange of cynical aphorisms culled from two letters of mine. Whoever was the printer knoweth his business, for errors were monstrous few. The R. will evidently be quite some paper—pictures ‘n’ everything. Surely Mrs. G is the find of the present year amateurically, & I regret very much the recent indisposition to which you refer.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 30 Aug 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 187

In July 1921, Sonia H. Greene met H. P. Lovecraft at the National Amateur Press Association convention in Boston. The meeting led to an extended correspondence, and eventually their marriage in 1924. Yet before they married, Sonia worked hard on a new project: an amateur journal of her own. Many amateurs issued their own journals, forerunners of the ‘zine culture of today, put together with love, enthusiasm, and and often rather modest equipment. H. P. Lovecraft had issued his own amateur journal, The Conservative (1915-1919, 1923), and he suppiled both content for the two issues, but also proofreading and (perhaps) editorial assistance.

Finally #598 was reached, & the visitor was introduced to the present regent of these domains—my elder aunt. Both seemed delighted with each other, & my aunt has ever been eloquent in her praise of Mme. G., whose ideas, speech, manner, aspect, & even attire impressed her with the greatest of favourableness. In truth, this visit has materially heightened my aunt’s respect for amateurdom—an institution whose extreme democracy & occasional heterogeneity have at times made it necessary for me to apologise for it. During the session at #598, Rainbow proofs were the main topic. I read most of them, denatured a sketch which some might have taken as a caricature on myself, & set aside for revision a piece of verse entitled “Mors Omnibus Communis”. I am told that you advised the inclusion of this piece in the R. If so, why the hell didn’t you correct it? It could not stand as it was. The R. will be quite some paper—believe Grandpa! Since the visit I have let Mme. G. have Loveman’s “Triumph in Eternity”, which will lend a finishing touch of exquisite classicism. It is one of the most splendid poems amateurdom has ever produced. At length the meeting adjourned, & Mme. G. generously invited both my aunt & myself to dinner at the Crown. Having had a noon meal, (we eat but twice daily) we were not ready for another; so my aunt had to decline, whilst I went along & consumed only a cup of coffee & portion of chocolate ice-cream.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Rheinhart Kleiner, 21 Sep 1921, Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner & Others 190

Sonia H. Greene was not an amateur printer with a handpress; she had the amateur magazine typeset and printed professionally, including with photographs, on good paper. This makes those two issues some of the handsomest amateur journals of the period. There is no indication of the number of copies of each issue, but given the size of each issue (the first issue was 14 pages, the second issue 20), even a modest run of 50 copies, complete with proofs, would have been a considerable outlay of cash, and the printrun may well have been higher.

Beyond a doubt, the leading amateur publication of the season is Mrs. Sonia H. Greene’s resplendent October Rainbow. The editor is anxious to have this magazine reach every member of the United, and hopes that all who have been accidentally overlooked will notify her at 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y., that the omission may be repaired.
—“News Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 1 (Sep 1921), Collected Essays 1.299

In 1921, Lovecraft was the Official Editor for his faction of the United Amateur Press Association of America; an election dispute in the organization some years before had split the membership, and Lovecraft assumed a leadership role. It is no doubt Lovecraft’s personal influence that convinced Sonia H. Greene to join the UAPA, and to issue The Rainbow to both the United and National membrs. How much more influence Lovecraft had on the production of The Rainbow is a matter of conjecture.

The Rainbow (October 1921), Vol. I, No. 1

How many struggling mortals languish and pine for want of an adequate outlet for self-expression! Thousands find it a prime necessity to give vent to their thoughts on paper—thousands who think deeply and feel strongly, yet who through diffidenceor hesitancy tend to be inarticulate regarding their half-conscious aesthetic and intellectual longings. Such persons, knowing how prone are ones near and dear to misunderstand, must either speak through the medium of writing or remain mute, lonely and repressed.
—Sonia H. Greene, “Amateurdom and the Editor,” The Rainbow (vol. 1, no. 1) 3

Thus does Sonia open her first amateur journal. The contents include “Ode to Florence” by Sonia H. Greene (poem; Florence Carol Greene being her daughter), “Nietzsche as a Practical Prophet” by Alfred Galpin (essay), “Philosophia” by Sonia H. Greene (essay), “How I Would Like To Be Entertained At The Next National Convention” by James F. Morton (poem), “More Omnibus Communis” by Sonia H. Greene (poem), “Nietscheism and Realism” by H. P. Lovecraft (essay), “Idle Idylls” by Sonia H. Greene (essay), “To—” by Rheinhart Kleiner (poem), “A Triumph in Eternity” by Samuel Loveman (poem), two letters from Sonia H. Greene, and “Oh, If The Gods” by Rheinhart Kleiner (poem).

The most notable thing about his issue is that the editing and writing of the editorials show little to no influence from Lovecraft, though he likely helped procure some of the contents. Galpin, Kleiner, Morton, and Loveman were all mutual friends of the two, and one of the letters is to their amateur friend Edith Miniter with praise for her novel Out Naputski Neighbors (1916). Lovecraft’s essay “Nietscheism and Realism” was stitched together from two letters to Sonia on the subject of Nietzsche, which subject she had been arguing through correspondence with both Lovecraft and Galpin.

I have just read proofs of my RAINBOW article, which consists of some cynical aphorisms culled from two letters of mine. I fear this stuff will shock friend Mocrates—but it may help prepare him for the fuller shock of my “Confession of Unfaith” in Campbell’s next LIBERAL.
—H. P. Lovecraft to the Gallomo, 31 Aug 1921, Letters to Alfred Galpin 104

There is still the air of the amateur to the production; not in the formatting or the editing, but the content. Sonia’s material doesn’t exactly dominate the issue thanks to the meaty essays by Lovecraft and Galpin, but her own essays are relatively weak and unfocused by comparison. Given the placement and source of Lovecraft and Galpin’s essays, I suspect that “Philosophia” is borrowed from one of her letters to Galpin or Lovecraft, addressing a similar subject but in a very informal way; her strongest passage being:

When the intellectually and phsyically strong will learn how to rule wisely and humanely, and the weak will recognize the limits of their natural ability; when the strong will properly compensate the weak for their efforts, giving them the chance to develop according to their lights; when property and the accumulation of superfluous wealth and dominant power shell not be placed above human comfort and life—then may civilization rise to altitudes not yet achieved in the history of man. There must be neither “master nor slave,” but “leader and led.” Then, and then only, may there be a justifiable hope for the advent of the superman.
—Sonia H. Greene, “Philosphia,” The Rainbow (vol. 1, no. 1) 7

H. P. Lovecraft made a great deal about The Rainbow in the pages of amateur journals; aside from The United Amateur, he also penned Rainbow called Best First Issue” in the National Amateur 44, No. 4 (Mar 1922), CE 1.310-312, and he wrote about it in letters to friends:

You have probably seen Mrs. G.’s paper—The Rainbow—ere this, and may judge her general amateur interest by it. After her amazing pledge to the O.O. Fund I do not know how tactful it would be to suggest recruiting funds immediately; but after a duly decorous interval I fancy the matter might well be broached. You might drop her a line of welcome, her address being 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. Mrs. G. is an agnostic & anti-religionist, as you may observe in the Rainbow; but is too Russian & emotional to share the biting cynicism of Galpin & myself.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Anne Tillery Renshaw, 3 Oct 1921, Letters to Elizabeth Toldridge 367

The issue, already fairly long by amateur standards, might have been longer still, but at least one item was apparently left out of The Rainbow:

I have sent to Arkham House snapshots of HPL’s aunts, some postcards, a story revised by HP. and a fictitious story I wrote about HP a few months after I met him, but at his request I did not publish it in the Rainbow because, as he told it, it was too obviously a description of himself.
—Sonia Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 11 Dec 1948, MSS. John Hay Library

By inference, this would be “Four O’Clock” (1949) by Sonia H. Greene.

It must not have been too long after the successful mailing of the first issue that plans came underway for a second.

The Rainbow (May 1922), Vol. II, No. 2

Without a doubt the greatest publishing event of the season is the second number of Mrs. Sonia H. Greene’s magnificent Rainbow. It is difficult to imagine either mechanical lavishness or excellence of contents carried to a greater extreme, and the United may well be proud of having such an exponent. The editorial tone is a stimulating one, forming an influence in just the proper direction at this trying juncture of amateur history. A special word is due the excellent portraits of eminent amateurs, among which is the first likeness of our poet-laureate, Mrs. S. Lilian McMullen (Lillian Middleton) ever published in Amatuer Journalism. Amateurs failing to receive The Rainbow are urged to notify the editor at 259 Parkside Ave., Booklyn, N.Y.
—”News Notes,” United Amateur 21, No. 5 (May 1922), Collected Essays 1.317

The second (and ultimately final) issue of The Rainbow was even larger and more lavish than the first. It begins with three extensive editorial essays: “Amateurdom and the Editor,” “Recruiting,” and “Opinion” (all unsigned); followed by “Commercialism—The Curse of Art” (essay), “Amatory Aphorisms” (prose), “A Game of Chess” (essay), and “Heins versus Houtain” (essay), all by Sonia H. Greene; “I Wonder” (poem) and “Keep Smiling” (poem), by B. C. Brightrall, “My Yesterdays” (poem) by W. C. Brightrall, “The Distant Forest” (poem) by Betty Jane Kendall, “Certain Ideals” (essay) by Edith Miniter, “Behind the Swinging Door” (poem) by Lilian Middleton, “Celephais” (short story) by H. P. Lovecraft, “Misconceptions of Art” (essay) by James F. Morton, “A Letter to G— K—” (poem) by Samuel Loveman, “Through the Eyes of the Poet” (essay) by Maurice W. Moe, “Frank Harris” (essay) by Alfred Galpin, “Amatuerdom of the Editor” (essay) by “The Editor.”

There are new names: Maurice W. Moe was a friend of Lovecraft, Lillian Middleton was a well-known amateur poet, W. C. or B. C. Brightall was probably William Clemens Brightall, an amateur poet and traveling salesman who would publisha book of poetry titled Tip o’ The Tongue (1925), and Betty Jane Kendall, only nine years old, was the daughter of former NAPA president Frank Austin Kendall, and her mother Jennie Kendall Plaisier was still active in amateurdom as well. Lovecraft fans will note the first publication of Lovecraft’s story “Celephrais,” and Loveman’s poem “A Letter to G— K—” is a reference to bookseller George Kirk, a mutual friend of Lovecraft and Loveman who would go on to be one of the founding members of the Kalem Club during Lovecraft’s New York adventure.

Some readers might wonder if Lovecraft had a heavier hand in the editing of this issue, at least in touching up some of the four unsigned editorial pieces. It’s hard to tell, especially since there is very little in Lovecraft’s letters on the creation of this issue, his only comment being:

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

The former is a reference to the lead editorial “Amateurdom and the Editor,” which reads like some of Lovecraft’s unsigned editorials in other amateur journals—and it is written in the third person, whereas Sonia’s more personable editorial “Amateurdom of the Editor” is written in the first person. While it is impossible to tell, without some surviving manuscript or letter, I would not be surprised if Lovecraft helped Sonia complete this issue by revising a few of the earlier, unsigned editorials. At the very least, Lovecraft was seeing these editorials, or proofs thereof, months earlier than anyone else if the date on his letter to Kleiner is to be believed.

The later bit regarding “Mrs. Houtain,” is a reference to Sonia’s essay “Heins versus Houtain,” and involves a dispute between NAPA president Elsie Houtain and the teenaged Official Editor John Milton Heins; Sonia had not been in amateur journalism long and was already feeling the effects of some of the politics and personalities that come with any small organization.

Some gauge to response to these two issue of The Rainbow can be had in the memoirs of Lovecraft and Sonia’s mutual amateur friends:

Just previous to his coming to Brooklyn, and no doubt as part of her campaign to impress herself upon Lovecraft, his wife-to-be had issued an elaborate number of an amateur magazine, The Rainbow. It contained half-tone reproductions of Lovecraft’s portrait, together with portraits of his friends and articles or poems from their pens. It was a great success from the amateur journalist’s point-of-view, and I believe it may have been during the early stage of her married life with Lovecraft that she decided to issue another one. Printing costs being then, as now, quite high, I suppose the first issue cost a couple of hundred dollars. The second could not have cost much less. I don’t know what crisis took place in her affairs at this time—she had been holding a well-paid job as “buyer” in an uptown hat shop—but to pa for this issue she made an arrangement with the printer whereby his wife could obtain all the hats she wanted up to the amount of the bill. I am almost certain that Lovecraft was prominently featured in the first Rainbow, but he may have had enough influence to keep himself out of too conspicuous a place in the second. But this mere conjecture.
—Rheinhart Kleiner, “A Memoir of Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 105

But I leave all the fascinating details of that convention to tell of The Rainbow, issued by Sonia Greene in the following October. It was a large and handsome affair, illustrated with half-tone reproductions of photographs of well-known amateurs of the day and containing excellent contributions by many of them. Lovecraft, still in Providence, reviewed it at some length in The National Amateur, for March, 1922. He said, in part, that The Rainbow represented “a genuinely artistic and intelligent attempt to crystallise homogeneously a definite mood as handled by many writers.” He said much more, and it was all highly satisfactory to Mrs. Greene. In fact, the vivacious Brooklyn widow was quite dazed with delight.
—Rheinhart Kleiner, “Discourse on H. P. Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 194

Some time in the school year 1921-1922 I received a brief visit at Madison from Sonia Greene, later Mrs. Lovecraft. She had recently joined the United Amatuer Press Association, met Howard, and presented ponderous essays by Howard and me in her amateur publication, The Rainbow (October, 1921). Howard and I were then both faithful to a vaguely aesthetic sort of Nietzscheism. In her incidenta correspondence with me she found that besides my fondness for Nietzsche I was even fonder of Dostoievski, and it was this discovery (the Russians were not so generally in style in those days) that imprelled her to meet me in person.
—Alfred Galpin, “Memories of a Friendship” in Ave Atque Vale 203

Kleiner’s recollection of the arrangement with the printer is no doubt confused with a later affair; when in 1928 she had her own hat shop for a time (cf. Letters to Family and Family Friends 2.628-629), but the admiration of both those amateurs even decades later was real.

So why were there only two issues? No doubt cost was a major factor, and perhaps time. Publishing an amateur journal is a largely thankless task, and Sonia’s final editorial speaks of her burning the metaphorical midnight oil to write and edit; perhaps business and her personal life made putting together and issuing a third issue untenable. Even Lovecraft had gaps in the publication of his much more modest journal The Conservative, which he finally revived for a few issues in 1923.

The Rainbow (Vol. I, No. 1) has historically been the most accessible of the two issues because in 1977 Marc Michaud of the Necronomicon Press issued a facsimile reproduction in an edition of 550 copies, and this facsimile edition is still widely available at reasonable prices, for those interested in this early piece of Lovecraftiana, and to read Lovecraft’s essay in something close to it’s original context, as part of a conversation with Sonia.

The Rainbow (Vol. II, No. 2) has never been reprinted. However, as it is in the public domain a digital copy of the issue is now available for free on the Internet Archive.


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

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