“The Lady of the Swamp” (2014) by Janeen Webb

Picture Australia, with its unfamiliar names and strange, fascinating animals; the unique culture that is not British or American but parallels both in its own way. As with the United States, there is a limit to Australian history, a beginning; the cities are new places, and before the first Europeans came is a vast and sketchy pre-history belonging to the Native Australians. No Gothic castles, no crumbling Roman ruin; Lovecraft made do with standing stones and secret caverns in the United States, and in Australia, Janeen Webb’s eponymous old woman finds a cave in the swamp, with native paintings adorning its walls.

“The Lady of the Swamp” is like “Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin in that it is not explicitly a story of the Mythos; there are no familiar names invoked here, only themes and tropes. It is Mythos-by-association, in that it was published in the collection Cthulhu: Deep Down Under (2015), and there are definite shades of Lovecraft twisted throughout the narrative: the dark crystal so reminiscent of the Shining Trapezohedron, yet another curious cosmic rape, impregnation, and birth like so many other Mythos tales. The tale is told through diaries, a callback to yesteryear, the determined investigator sorting through the documentary pieces of a life, trying to resolve the mystery in their own minds. Very Lovecraftian.

Yet H. P. Lovecraft knew nothing of fracking. The mundane horror of a nameless Company driving a road through a swamp, threatening the life of a poor and lonely woman living out of a broken caravan, is at best tangential to the themes he liked to employ—of people on the edge of things, where civilization ends and slick citydwellers come only rarely and without real understanding. Webb’s story is part ecopunk, part adult fears: people falling out of society, migrating to the edges, only for their solitude to be rudely interrupted. The uncaring tentacles of the Company ripping apart the fragile tissue of a life are meaner than those of Cthulhu, but only because the hands that drive the bulldozer are ultimately human.

The disconnect between the two themes, of the eldritch evil which rapes the old woman at the beginning of the story and the studied ignorance and lack of empathy of the Company men and reporters in the second half, feels like cognitive dissonance. The narrative distance between the two portions of her diary are immense; the unnatural sexual congress and birth are less intrusive than that of the callous “scientists” and reports that studiously ignore and belittle her, trespassing on her home.

It is the latter which ultimately cuts more deeply; the child of their union is, however unnatural the conception, little different from the other young creatures she has nurtured. She may have stumbled across an eldritch evil in a forgotten cave, but it did not seek her out or harass her beyond that, whereas the company is coming into her home, threatening her life.

The confrontation is easy to see looming.

And when the lady of the swamp is given the choice between the mundane horrors of “progress” and the bloody price extracted by eldritch horror of her swamp…well, it isn’t much of a choice at all, really. People fight with the weapons they have, and the lesser evil is sometimes a nameless thing of darkness. At least the eldritch evil probably won’t kill all the wombats.

“The Lady of the Swamp” first appeared in Webb’s collection Death at the Blue Elephant (2014), and was reprinted in the hardback Cthulhu: Deep Down Under (2015) and The Year’s Best Australian Fantasy and Horror 2014 (2015). The story was not republished in the paperback collection Cthulhu Deep Down Under: Volume 1 (2017), but was replaced by another of Webb’s stories, “A Pearl Beyond Price.”


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

“Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter

For the next few years I saw Mrs. Miniter quite often at meetings and festivals of the Hub Club, and always admired the effectiveness with which she devised entertainment and maintained interest. In April, 1921, her quaintly named and edited paper The Muffin Man contained a highly amusing parody of one of my weird fictional attempts… “Falco Ossifracus, by Mr. Goodguile”…thought it was not of a nature to arouse hostility.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Mrs. Miniter—Estimates and Recollections” (1938) in the Collected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft 1.381

Edith Dowe Miniter was a professional journalist during the 1880s to 1900s, writing both articles and perceptive stories that dealt often with the perspective of women in New England; her sole published novel was Our Natpuski Neighbors (1916), chronicling the experience of an immigrant Polish family to Massachusetts—and the townfolks’ not always positive reaction to their new neighbors.

Along with professional journalism, Edith Miniter was a powerful voice in amateur journalism, a leading voice of the Hub Amateur Journalism Club in Boston. An idealist, she was not one for compromise and engaged in fierce battles over the administration of the National Amateur Press Association, which caused one friend to write:

In spite of unusual difficulties and unforseeable betrayals, her administration was able and efficient; and it ended forever the tradition that the highest official position within out gift was earmarked “For Men Only.”
—James F. Morton, “Some Thoughts on Edith Miniter” in Dead Houses and Other Works 79

In 1920, she met the young amateur Howard Phillips Lovecraft, and they became good friends through her final years, with a visit to her home in 1928 providing some of the details to “The Dunwich Horror.” For all that Miniter and Lovecraft were friends, their tastes did not all run in the same line. Lovecraft reported that:

Mrs. Miniter did not care for stories of a macabre or supernatural cast; regarding them as hopelessly extravagant and unrepresentative of life.
H. P. LovecraftCollected Essays of H. P. Lovecraft1.381

At the time, Lovecraft was publishing little else. His published fiction in amateur periodicals in 1921 included “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” (1919), “Dagon” (1919), “The White Ship” (1919), “The Statement of Randolph Carter” (1920), “The Doom that Came to Sarnath” (1920), “The Cats of Ulthar” (1920), “Nyarlathotep” (1920), and “Polaris” (1920). It was in this spirit that Miniter chose to tweak her younger friend’s nose with one of the first parodies of his style. In her epitaph to the story, Miniter wrote:

It pleasures us exceedingly to offer our readers a condensed novel by the renowned Mr. Goodguile. Why pursue the works of this author throught Tryouts, Vagrants and National Amateurs, as yet in press, when here is the quintessence? Similar attention is promised later to such of our eminent fictionists as merit it.
—Edith Miniter, Dead Houses and Other Works 117

The Tryout, Vagrant, and National Amateur well all amateur journalism magazines where Lovecraft’s work had appeared; the name “Goodguile” (aside from being an obvious play on Lovecraft), was a jab at Lovecraft’s love of pseudonyms during this period, as was used in “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) by Anna Helen Crofts & H. P. Lovecraft and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) by Winifred Virginia Jackson & H. P. Lovecraft. In this, Miniter was unknowingly anticipating the work of pasticheurs and parodists of several generations in the future, such as “I Wore the Brassiere of Doom!” (1986) by “Sally Theobald” (Robert M. Price).

The primary inspiration for Miniter’s parody appears to be “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” at least so far as the protagonist is their with his close male associate in a graveyard echoes some of the essentials of that story. Lovecraft had not yet written “The Unnameable” or “The Hound,” but the fact that those stories hit so close to the same formula shows how squarely Miniter’s critique hit home.

Other shots followed, and ones Lovecraft and their mutual friends could hardly miss:

“Your pal,” came the response, “Iacchus Smithsonia,” the name was originally John Smith, but it is always my will that my friends bear a name of my choosing and as cumbersome a one as possible, “is cleaning out Tomb 268.” (ibid, 118)

This is a jab at Lovecraft’s habit of doing exactly this with friends, addressing them by nicknames in letters and sometimes other places; famously this was adopted by his circle of pulp friends so that Clark Ashton Smith became Klarkash-Ton, and Robert E. Howard was Two-Gun Bob, but it was applied to many as a sign of affection. In her surviving letters to Lovecraft, Miniter addresses him as “Mr. Goodguile.” (ibid. 46)

A little farther down, she takes a shot at Lovecraft’s occasionally ultraviolet prose and fondness for obscure, archaic, or technical terminology:

“I am really sorry to have to ask you to absquatulate,” he said, employing the chaice diction which is so peculiar to we of the educated aristocracy, “but this ain’ no place for a feller with cold feet.” (ibid.)

As parodies go, Miniter’s “Falco Ossifracus” probably hits home a little less to contemporary readers than The Adventures of Samurai Cat (1984) by Mark E. Rogers or “Nautical-Looking Negroes” (1996) by Peter Cannon & Robert M. Price. Lovecraft’s mythos had not strictly been put to paper yet, as the first tale in the Arkham cycle, “The Picture in the House” was written in December 1920 but not published until the summer of 1921, so Miniter had no such target to purposefully aim for.

Yet if it lacks for not being a true pastiche, or for going after what today might seem to be obvious targets, there is no doubt that the good-natured shots aimed at Lovecraft must have hit home. The well-intentioned roasting was likewise received with good humor considering they were still subsequently on good terms.

“Falco Ossifracus” first appeared in The Muffin Man (Apr 1921), and has been reprinted by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. in Going Home and Other Amateur Writings  (1995) and Dead Houses and Other Works (2008).


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

“Red Goat, Black Goat” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin

“The Goat is our real mother! She is everyone’s real mother!”
—Nadia Bulkin, “Red Goat, Black Goat”

From the 1930s on, fans and writers have tried to give shape and order to the Mythos. It is a participatory ritual: the reader’s understanding is always unique, built and shaped by what they have read, what connections their intellect has made, how their imagination fills in the blanks. There is no one canon. There are only possibilities.

In “Red Goat, Black Goat” Nadia Bulkin cracks opens up a new possibility.

It is a story of Shub-Niggurath only by inference. Bulkin eschews the tropes of Mythos pastiche. The Black Goat of the title is a hint, at best; a suggestion of the epithet “The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young.” Yet the entity in this story is never named as such; there are no tomes, no familiar place names. “Red Goat, Black Goat” does not partake of the “lore” of the Mythos in the tongue-in-cheek manner of “ALL THIS for the GREATER GLORY of the 7th and 329th CHILDREN of the BLACK GOAT of the WOODS” (2012) by Molly Tanzer or “Shub-Niggurath’s Witnesses” (2015) by Valerie Valdes.

Bulkin carves her own bit of lore, with the bloody skill of an Indonesian horror film. The setting is not played up as some exotic bit of the “mysterious Orient” as it might have been in Lovecraft’s day. She grounds and develops the setting as Lovecraft did Dunwich, the characters an organic part of the whole so that none of the non-English terminology that peppers their thoughts and speech seems false or unnecessary.

At the same time, “Red Goat, Black Goat” partakes of the essence of the Mythos. The Goat is something outside the system of superstition that the characters know; it exists beyond their framework of understanding. Aspects of it echo themes developed by other writers; the terrible all-mother Cybele of “The Rats in the Walls,” or “Koenigsberg’s Model” (2011) by Peter Tupper, but it is far less defined than even those incarnations.

Nor is the story leavened by any real attempt at humor, wry or otherwise; there is gore, but not the microscopic dwelling in viscera that is splatterpunk. Bulkin moves quick, lest the tale be bogged down in dirty details. Her horrors are passing, visceral images that build shortly toward mini-climaxes, her pacing cinematic as the narrative moves swiftly toward a point of finality—not the ending of a story, but the closing of one chapter.

It’s a good story that leaves you wanting more; Bulkin could have written “Red Goat, Black Goat” out as a Javanese Gothic novel and it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. There are no answers, really, and that’s okay. Readers will fit this into their own personal understanding of the Mythos just fine; one more incarnation of Shub-Niggurath, one more thread in the endless tapestry. It’s a story that should be part of more reader’s personal Mythos.

“Red Goat, Black Goat” was first published for free online in Innsmouth Free Press #4 (June 2010); it has been reprinted in Lovecraft’s Monsters (2014) and Nadia Bulkin’s collection She Said Destroy (2017).


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

 

 

Editor Spotlight: W. H. Pugmire

It is a strange and curious fact that I found myself as an author and Lovecraftian only after I began to live the punk rock lifestyle. Before then I had a sense of being different, but it wasn’t until I stuck that pin in my ear and shaved off some of my hair that I began to truly feel like The Outsider. […] I mentioned Lovecraft in the early issues of Punk Lust, and was delighted when I’d go to local gigs and people would come up to me and shout with drunken fervor, “Ia! The Crawling Chaos!” This was way back in the days before Lovecraft became a game. People who knew of him had gained this occult knowledge by reading Lovecraft’s fiction. […] And now we have a most wonderful occurrence: punk kids are growing  up to become remarkable horror authors, often blending  punk with their macabre fiction. This is only natural for those of us who portray our personal lives and loves in our horror fiction.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #4

Following the death of August Derleth in 1971, the Mythos slowly opened up to a new and more diverse set of writers. During the 1970s and ’80s, the largest development of the Mythos and Lovecraftian fiction outside of Arkham House occurred in small-press magazines—cheaply printed paper pamphlets, mostly written by and for amateur fandom. Amateur press associations such as the Esoteric Order of Dagon (EOD) would compile magazines for mass-mailings, allowing wider dissemination of new poems, short fiction, and articles about Lovecraft and the Mythos to be disseminated outside of the editorial control of any one publisher.

Many Mythos writers would be featured prominently in magazines, including Brian McNaughton, Robert M. Price, Stanley C. Sargent, and Wilum Hopfrog Pugmire—a queer punk writer, editor, and poet, the self-styled Queen of Eldritch Horror, whose magazine credits include Midnight Fantasies (1973–76), Old Bones (1975-1976), Queer Madness (1980-1981), Visions from Khroyd’hon (1976), and Tales of Lovecraftian Horror (1987–99). In Tales, Pugmire described a forward-looking approach to Lovecraft and his fiction:

Lovecraftian horror is my obsession. When nothing else can cure bordeom, I need only turn to one of countless books or magazines, and suddenly my gloom is gone. And when I’m feeling very bold, I try my hand at writing my own. […] And yet, when I decided to finally try to edit a magazine of Lovecraftian fiction, I discovered that I was a bit uncertain as to just what I was looking for as an editor. I found that I was unable to describe what I meant by “Lovecraftian horror.” I knew that I did not want trendy Cthulhu Mythos fiction. I am not anti-Mythos; but I hate the way it has usurped other forms of Lovecraftian horror.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lovecraftian Horror” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #1

At the time, considerable Mythos fiction was being published in ‘zines like Crypt of Cthulhu (1981-2001, 2017- ) and Chronicles of the Cthulhu Codex (1985-2000), as well as the Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Fiction anthologies beginning with The Hastur Cycle (1993). It was a period of reprinting long out-of-print favorites, of re-discovering and re-publishing the original text of Lovecraft’s stories, and endless pastiches, sequels, prequels, and original works tying into the Mythos of various levels of quality and originality. It is to this outpouring of Cthulhuiana that Pugmire speaks:

The Mythos has been overused, and most of the newer tales bore me, be they by fans or pros. I find very few of them truly “Lovecraftian,” seeming more like the kind of thing Derleth was wont to write. I have no intention of publishing Cthulhu Mythos stories in TOLH. The small press has the delicious ability to act as an alternative to what is trendy, popular, and commercial. It is this alternative side of Lovecraftian horror that I hope to present. (ibid)

The small press publishing during Tales of Lovecraftian Horror’s run is a far cry from the desktop publishing and print-on-demand world of today, which led to the explosion of Mythos anthologies in the late 2000s and 2010s headed by editors like Silvia Moreno-Garcia and Paula R. Stiles of Innsmouth Free Press, and far and away from the mass-market anthologies produced by Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran, or Joyce Carol Oates for the literary and academic market. It was a more punk enterprise, full of DIY energy and freedom to experiment, and Pugmire wanted to focus on more than just tentacled beasties and moldy grimoires that aped the outward tropes of the Mythos but missed the essence:

Lovecraftian horror conveys mood, atmosphere, and situations that were dear to H. P. Lovecraft and are evident in his own spectral and cosmic fiction. […] Just as Lovecraft scholarship is growing, so too should Lovecraftian fiction go forward, becoming much more than it has been. Instead of writing formula stories, we can use Lovecraftian themes as a foundation on which to try to build our own unique fiction. […] A good Lovecraftian tale should, I feel, express things that move us to profound emotions. Using HPL’s fiction, his dreams as they are recorded in his published letters, we can find inspiration for our own tales of dread. Writing horror fiction  is not an attempt to escape from reality, rather, as it was with Lovecraft, it is an expression of those aspects of reality that move us creatively, as artists. And as humans. (ibid)

Pugmire’s influence as an editor in the first three issues is often overlooked. Tales of Lovecraftian Horror published Thomas Ligotti, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Ann K. Schwader, and other noteworthy writers; the second issue published Robert M. Price’s episode of “Herbert West—Reanimated,” which has gone on to spawn a weird and convoluted continuity that is still being continued today by Peter Rawlik and others in books like Legacy of the Reanimator (2015) and Reanimatrix (2016).

In part, this may be because the series was published by Cryptic Publications, with the assistance and guidance of Price—and lapsed after the third issue, only to be reanimated in 1996 with Price as editor, though he assured readers that Pugmire was still the guiding spirit (and associate editor). That spirit was always one that sought individuality. Pugmire would write his own corner of the Mythos with his Sesqua Valley tales and others but as an editor, he wanted his fellow writers to go beyond Lovecraft, not be restricted by him. In one editorial Pugmire recalled:

While editing the early issues of this magazine, I received a submission froma bloke who, in his letter of introduction, expressed his desire to become “the new Lovecraft.” I find this utterly absurd. There will never be another Lovecraft, because HPL was absolutely and unively himself. Let us strive with our horror fiction to be ourselves, to write the tales that only we can tell. We may fall short of our goal, but at least we have made an honest effort, rather than being content to mimic a boring Mythos formula that is void of any hint of Lovecraftian ambience.  Listen to the fear that haunts your soul and sears your throbbing brain. then you will truly write fiction that expresses authentic respect for our beloved Grandpa Theobald.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #5

Some Lovecraftian fiction today certainly echoes Pugmire’s sentiments. Anthologies like Chthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth partake of Lovecraft without being slavishly devoted to his Mythos—and in general, there seems to be fairly wide appeal to the idea that originality and quality of writing mean more than trying to write after Lovecraft (or Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, etc.). Pastiche still has its place, but Pugmire was one of the voices that called for writers to move beyond that…and to really emphasize that what is important about Lovecraft is not the person of Cthulhu or the use of the Necronomicon, but simply that Lovecraft was original. The artificial mythology that Lovecraft and his contemporaries created strikes a chord in readers, even today because it is different from the hoary tales of gods and demigods, heroes and fables in Bullfinch’s Mythology.

Pugmire saw in Lovecraft something that spoke to him, and that spoke to others:

Other punk kids are joining the throng. […] They have oddly-colored hair and pierced faces; they listen to death metal and goth rock; they are avid fans of H. P. Lovecraft. Our ranks are growing, and our voices will be heard. Our horror fiction will wear within its soul our punk rock angst. Our fiction, like our music, will be the voice of the Outsider.
—W. H. Pugmire, “Lustcraft” in Tales of Lovecraftian Horror #4

Wilum H. Pugmire passed away on 26 March 2019. We will not see his like again.


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

“Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” (2016) by Veronica Schanoes

Though I can’t deny that Lovecraft has influenced my work, I couldn’t relate to the exalted place he seemed to occupy, and wondered if the difference could be ascribed to gender. More to the point, I made a sweeping generalization rather off-handedly: “Lovecraft does nothing for me,” I said. “That wasn’t the horror the girls were passing around in fifth grade. V. C. Andrews is to girls what Lovecraft is to boys.”

Of course, I was wrong—plenty of women have found Lovecraft very important indeed—but I don’t think I was entirely wrong.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

The degree to which H. P. Lovecraft has become a character as enthralling to fans as any of his creations is evident in the body of fiction that has developed around him. Works like Grant Morrison’s “Lovecraft in Heaven” (1994) and Alan Moore’s “Recognition” (1995) focus on aspects of his life story—his death by cancer, his syphilitic father—and ruminate and expand on the mind of the man who created Cthulhu. Veronica Schanoes in “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” adds to this body of work. In her own words:

In this piece, I wonder about Lovecraft’s own monstrous generation; about the racist horrors that founded the United States and what they mean to someone who saw himself as an avatar of eighteenth-century America; the horror of the Other that took the form of Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, and what that means to me, a a twenty-first-century Jew in New York City.
—Veronica Schanoes, The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu 460

While this is a work of fiction, Schanoes takes her impetus from fact: her building-up of the story piece by piece is done with all the care and attention of a hoax—and indeed, her skill is such that if the initial section (“Monstrous Generation”) was published as non-fiction, it would probably be convincing to many. Victoria Nelson’s essay “H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies” (1996) made similar suggestive claims that Lovecraft inherited congenital syphilis from his father—but where Nelson was perhaps unaware that Lovecraft’s medical records indicated he did not have the disease (Price, “Did Lovecraft Have Syphilis?” in Crypt of Cthulhu #53, 1988), Schanoes’ artfully insinuations are a stepping stone to more profound revelations.

The true threat is never external—it’s not the dreadful non-Aryan immigrants flooding into the United States; it’s not the inhuman alien beings, worshipped as gods, who would barely notice humanity as they crushed it. The true threat always comes from the inside, the self rising up beyond all reason, beyond even survival. In the end, the most monstrous growth is always already one’s own.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 465

The great insight that Schanoes shows in this piece is to take the common and oft-repeated themes of Lovecraft’s life and literature and to look at them from another angle. Lovecraft declared, on his return to this city of his birth after failing to make it in New York City, “I Am Providence”—which S. T. Joshi took for the title of his mammoth biography. Yet it is Schanoes, here, who takes Lovecraft literally and digs into the history of old Providence; and nothing gets very old without having a multitude of sins.

I write and publish about Jews. Most of my protagonists, unless otherwise specified, are Ashkenazi Jews. Well, why should the goyim have all the fantastic, the speculative, the future imperfect? My editors have mostly been Jewish, too.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

When addressing Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism, Schanoes’ perspective shifts. She addresses the audience directly, personally. Why should she not? Lovecraft’s anti-Semitism is a subject that affects her personally—not so much because he personally can discriminate against her, since he has been safely dead for several decades, but his words and influence still survive as something Schanoes has to deal with.

Which is almost a microcosm of the subject of Lovecraft’s discrimination itself. Why does it matter, when Lovecraft is dead and gone? Because he isn’t gone, not entirely. His work lives on. For those whose grandparents survived the Holocaust—and remembered relatives that would not—Lovecraft’s remarks in the 1920s and 30s carry an edge today that people who cannot relate directly do not feel.

I do not like H. P. Lovecraft, and I doubt he would have liked me.
—Veronica Schanoes, “Variations on Lovecraftian Things” in ibid. 469

It would be unfair to point out gaps in Schanoes’ narrative, argue over her presentation of the facts, or suggest nuance to her conclusions. It would also be missing the point. While she quotes accurately from Lovecraft’s letters and the memoir of his wife (Sonia Haft Greene) about his life, this is still a work of fiction, not a polemic essay or hit piece.

What it is is a reflection of Lovecraft from an angle that readers are not used to seeing. Lovecraft scholars and biographers such as S. T. Joshi have not ignored his anti-semitism in the least—without their work in publishing Lovecraft’s letters, Schanoes would not have had the raw material for her piece—but none of them can present Lovecraft as seen through the eyes of a contemporary Jewish woman. The mirror that Schanoes holds up may be a funhouse one, with its little distortions for rhetorical and narrative effect, but it works precisely because the subject is still recognizable.

Veronica Schanoes’ “Variations on Lovecraftian Themes” was published in The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu (2016). It has not yet been reprinted.


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

Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction (2007) by Asenath Mason

“He is firmly convinced that all our gang—you, Two-Gun Bob, Sonny Belknap, Grandpa E’ch-Pi-El, and the rest—are genuine agents of unseen Powers in distributing hints too dark and profound for human conception or comprehension. We may think we’re writing fiction, and may even (absurd thought!) disbelieve what we write, but at bottom we are telling the truth in spite of ourselves—serving unwittingly as mouthpieces of Tsathoggua, Crom, Cthulhu, and other pleasant Outside gentry.”
—H. P. Lovecraft to Clark Ashton Smith, 3 Oct 1933, Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill 449

During their lifetimes, H. P. Lovecraft and his contemporaries received inquiries into whether or not the grimoires and entities in their pulp fiction were real—Lovecraft, ever the materialist, always admitted they were fiction. Yet in time occultists did begin to appropriate elements of the Mythos, and notable early works include Kenneth Grant with his Typhonian Trilogies, beginning with The Magical Revival (1972); Anton LaVey’s The Satanic Bible (1976). These works and others like them have in turn inspired further occult material, either expanding on previous work or adapting Lovecraftian elements to other magical paradigms. Lovecraftian occult literature has grown up alongside and occasionally interacting with Cthulhu Mythos fiction.

Much of the early occult interest centered around the Necronomicon, the most evocative of Lovecraft’s fictional grimoires, and in the 1970s it inspired a few prominent hoaxes, including editor George Hay’s Necronomicon: The Book of Dead Names (1978) and “Simon” with the ersatz Necronomicon (1977), which for the last several decades has been in print in a cheap and eminently affordable paperback edition.  These last two books were presented in the format of genuine grimoires, complete with ritual texts, sigils, talismans, etc. These books have formed the basis for a “Necronomicon tradition” in contemporary occult literature, with writers and practitioners attempting to reconcile, reconstruct, expand upon, and incorporate material from the various sources of the Lovecraftian occult into a cohesive system—or at least their personal system. It is only appropriate that Asenath Mason begins her work addressing this reality:

“[This book] refers to chosen published versions of the Necronomicon (by ‘the Necronomicon’ I will refer in this book to the general idea of the book and the particular lore of entities, not to any specific published text) as well as on some Necronomicon-related texts and grimoires which have appeared in the internet over the last few years. All these texts are generally considered hoaxes and if you do any serious research, you will find out that none of them is the ‘genuine’ Necronomicon. […] This fact, however, should not discourage us from working with these texts. […] Magical power is not contained within any written book but within our minds, and a mind of a creative individual can transform fiction into a genuine experience. In this sense we can use the Lovecraftian lore as a tool in exploration of dark labyrinths of our mind.”
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 9

Mason’s statement here is derived from chaos magicians like Phil Hine, author of Prime Chaos (1993) and Pseudonomicon (1994). While “Simon” presented their hoax Necronomicon with a false backstory as an actual text which inspired Lovecraft, and Kenneth Grant asserted Lovecraft had stumbled upon some occult truth which he expressed through his fiction, chaos magicians owned the fact that Lovecraft invented the Necronomicon, that it was a fictional text—but chose to work with it anyway. Fictional concepts and ideas in their tradition can be as valid for magickal operations as those taken from factual mythologies; to an inhabitant of the 20th or 21st century, Cthulhu and Osiris are both essentially dead names to conjure with.

Necronomicon Gnosis is essentially an exegesis of Lovecraftian occult materials: Mason’s interpretation of the body of magical ideas presented in the original stories (focusing primarily on H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth’s “posthumous collabortions” with Lovecraft) and already-presented occult material (primarily the Simon and Hay Necronomicons, Kenneth Grant, Phil Hine, Peter J. Carroll, Stephen Sennitt, and Donald Tyson). The text is not exhaustive and aimed at beginners who have limited experience with the occult or Lovecraft; the result is a bit odd but workable, a combination of literary analysis followed by suggestions or instructions for occult rituals or exercises, with many references to occult works the readers aren’t likely to be familiar with (titles included in a handy bibliography in the back).

While Lovecraft or his contemporaries might include some impressive feats of magic in their fiction like raising the dead, Mason’s Necronomicon Gnosis rites are generally more modest in scope, and focus on the understanding and spiritual development of the practitioner—the gnosis aspect of the title. For example, part of the instructions for “The Black Communion” a rite to invoke Shub-Niggurath include:

While the priest recites the incantation, the priestess must concentrate on becoming possessed by the invoked force. She should envision the Goddess with all her attribute and fully identify with her, o that the consciousness of the entity and the priestess become one. She should also arouse her sexual energy of the Kundalini serpent and inflame herself until she feels the primal insatiable lust, embodied by Shub-Niggurath.
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 134

The sexual aspect of this ritual is not unusual among Lovecraftian occult rites; Kenneth Grant was a disciple of Aleister Crowley, whose system incorporates ceremonial sex magick and the use of sexual fluids in rituals, for example. However, the vast majority of Lovecraftian occult materials are written by men, and there is a distinct androcentric and heteronormative approach to sex and sexual workings in the works of Grant, Simon, Tyson, etc., the material often focus either on lascivious depiction (like Grant’s infamous “Rite of Ku”) or on a male practitioner. In interpreting the material, Mason addresses some of the more obvious biases briefly:

[…] sex gives us power over ourselves because it is the ultimate expression of life. Thus, we have the conviction, characteristic of all monotheistic religions, telling us that sex is sin, as all mastery over life is reserved to God and man is not allowed to aspire to the divine power.
—Asenath Mason, Necronomicon Gnosis 127

Shub-Niggurath has been associated with any number of female mythological figures by various authors, and Mason spends quite a bit of time running through her accumulated symbolism. While Lovecraft described her as a “sophisticated Astarte”, occultists have associated her with Kali, Inanna, Ishtar, Lilith, Tiamat, Pan, and Bamphomet; with the moon, the planet Venus, and the elemental Earth…and so on and so forth. Mason makes a game effort to untangle the varied strands of symbolism and association with Shub-Niggurath, but as with efforts to “sort out” the Cthulhu Mythos itself, too many writers have contributed too many conflicting thoughts to produce a unified and consistent approach, except at a very high level: Shub-Niggurath is about sex, and exploration of your sexuality is a valid path to gnosis.

That is the point that Mason returns to, again and again, circling back to it through her readings of the Mythos and the Lovecraftian occult, the rituals and invocations. The desire for gnosis could be said to guide a number of Mythos readers who have no practical interest in the occult, and might well balk at the concept, but still thrill to the emotions evoked by a weird tale or look forward eagerly to a terminal revelation, or perhaps seek to broaden their horizons by reading Lovecraftian fiction that challenges the structure of the Mythos they are familiar with. It is a pursuit which, stripped of the occult trappings of spells and grimoires is explored in works like Scott Jones’ When The Stars Are Right: Toward An Authentic R’lyehian Spirituality (2014).

Necronomicon Gnosis: A Practical Introduction more or less fulfills its remit. While not as simple a magical system as presented in Donald Tyson’s Necronomicon series or as consistent a system as presented in the Necronomicon books by “Simon”, it is a solid effort at condensing the probably irreconcilable mystic mishmash of forty years of dedicated occult kitchensinking and presenting it while maintaining a consistent philosophy. For those who are interested in going deeper into the Lovecraftian occult, the Necronomicon Gnosis is a useful jumping-off point, naming key texts and authors to further their explorations.

The eternal temptation of such a combined approach is à la carte occultism—readers taking what they want or can use, and leaving the rest. This is effectively the same dilemma faced by readers and authors of the Cthulhu Mythos, and for many of the same reasons: with all these different stories, riffing off of the material created by Lovecraft and others, some of which is clearly incompatible with the rest—how do you decide what is true for you? What exactly are you as a reader or writer of Mythos fiction looking to accomplish? Perhaps we should all take a page from Mason’s book and consider not the trappings of the Mythos, but what we are trying to achieve through the use of the Mythos, what philosophy underlies it all. Do we seek escapism…or revelation and gnosis?

Asenath Mason is the founder of Lodge Magan, the Polish lodge of the Dragon Rouge magical order. Necronomicon Gnosis was published in both Polish and English editions by Edition Roter Drache in 2007. Those interested in a nonfiction history of the Lovecraftian occult and the Necronomicon tradition in particular should read The Necronomicon Files: The Truth Behind the Legend by Daniel Harms and John W. Gonce III.


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

“The Challenge From Beyond” (1935) by C. L. Moore

Didn’t the F. F. [sic] “Challenge from Beyond” turn out well, considering? Yours was by far the best installment insofar as originality and workmanship are concerned. You had the hardest section, too—having to explain all the unconnected ramblings of your predecessors. Several of the installments, including mine, were carelessly written and loosely phrased, but yours, as usual, was a miracle of exact wording. And wasn’t it interesting to see how the personality of each writer colored his installment.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 11 Dec 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 87

Catherine Lucille Moore was one of the most prominent female writers at Weird Tales during its heyday, a contemporary and correspondent to H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and others in “the circle,” who praised her fiction. Several of her stories have definite aspects reminiscent of the nascent Cthulhu Mythos: Moore’s “Shambleau” (Weird Tales Nov 1933) and Robert E. Howard’s “The Slithering Shadow” (WT Sep 1933) both feature tentacled aliens who carnally assault their victims; the strange angles and dimensions of the  tunnel in the depths of Joiry Castle in “Black God’s Kiss” (WT Oct 1934) and “Black God’s Shadow” (WT Dec 1934) are reminiscent of Lovecraft’s non-Euclidean geometries. Moore was introduced to her future husband and writing-partner Henry Kuttner through Lovecraft, and Kuttner made his own contributions to the Mythos, such as the Book of Iod.

Moore never participated directly in the collaborative universe of H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, August Derleth, and others—made no addition to the library of eldritch titles, no strange god with an unspeakable name, there was no road from Joiry to Averoigne or Arkham, Hyboria or Hyperborea. Neither did Lovecraft or the others reference her fiction in their own works. This was not in itself exceptional—other writers in “the circle” chose not to participate, or participated only through collaboration, like E. Hoffmann Price, who together with Lovecraft wrote “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” (WT Jul 1934), but who by himself never wrote a Mythos story, nor had any of his works referenced by his contemporaries in their Mythos stories. Moore was much the same; a colleague but not a co-conspirator… except for in one thing.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was the brainchild of Julius Schwartz, the teenage editor of the Fantasy Magazine; for the third anniversary issue of the fanzine, he had cooked up the idea of two round-robins, both titled “The Challenge from Beyond,” one being weird fiction and the other being science fiction. Schwartz successfully managed, after some effort and shake-ups, to attract a solid line-up for both; for the weird, C. L. Moore, A. Merritt, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, and Frank Belknap Long each wrote a section, building on each other’s efforts. Moore started it off.

Julius Schwartz has inveigled me into one of these chain-story things in which you are also scheduled to be drawn. I wrote a first installment and mailed it to him on the 18th. Certainly not a brilliant thing by any means—it’s hard to get very brilliant in three pages, especially if they’re chiefly devoted to setting the stage—but the best I could think of just then If it comes to you next, as I think it will, perhaps you can do better on the second installment. If you want to be bothered.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 53

I hope you haven’t had too much trouble over your installment. Mr. Schwartz asked me to be as weird and original as possible in starting it out, and I was notably neither. At least there was a vast expanse of room for improvement as the story advanced. Frankly, if I’d been able to think up something strikingly weird and new  I wouldn’t have given the idea away for nothing. Anyhow, it will be interesting to see what the others have done with such a poor start.
—C. L. Moore to H. P. Lovecraft, 22 Jul 1935, Letters to C. L. Moore and Others 62

Self-effacing to a fault, Moore’s section of “The Challenge from Beyond” is despite her mea culpas perfectly competent. True, not much happens and there is no mention of fantastic monsters, evil sorcery, lost races, or aliens from another planet or dimension—but it manages to hint of otherness, and establishes tone, character, setting, and subject, staying true to the basic premise while providing an obvious hook for the next writer. For 857 unpaid words, that’s not bad—and while dwarfed by Lovecraft (2,542) and Howard’s (1,037) sections, it is the third-longest section overall.

But is it a contribution to the Cthulhu Mythos?

And yet—that writing. Man-made, surely, although its characters were unfamiliar save in their faint hinting at cuneiform shapes. Or could there, in a Paleozoic world, have been things with a written language who might have graven these cryptic wedges upon the quartz-enveloped disc he held? Or—might a thing like this have fallen meteor-like out of space into the unformed rock of a still molten world? Could it—
—C. L. Moore, “The Challenge from Beyond”

Moore’s section was followed by a rather generic entry by A. Merritt—and it was up to Lovecraft to tie together the elements from their respective sections and actually begin to weave a story out of the thing. In Lovecraft’s section, Moore’s queerly-marked cube becomes an alien artifact, mentioned in the Eltdown Shards—a Mythos tome created by his correspondent Richard F. Searight. This is essentially the single element that ties “The Challenge from Beyond” into the larger collaborative universe that Lovecraft and his contemporaries were creating.

Reaction to the story in the letters of Lovecraft et al. is fair, with most of the focus on the interplay between Lovecraft and Howard’s sections—the Lovecraft swapping the mind of Moore’s geologist with that of a sentient extraterrestrial worm on a distant world, and Howard deciding that said geologist rather liked being an alien worm, and developed a desire to conquer this new planet—but this amusing juxtaposition of style could never have taken place without Moore’s initial contribution.

Debating C. L. Moore’s place as one of the early contributors to the Cthulhu Mythos is a strange hair to try and split, though I have done it myself in discussing “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ. Moore wrote an idea, Lovecraft picked it up and ran with it, and any ties to his Mythos are through Lovecraft’s efforts. This was typical: Lovecraft’s previous collaborations with Anna Helen Croft, Winifred Virginia Jackson, his wife Sonia H. Greene, Clifford M. Eddy Jr., E. Hoffmann Price, R. H. Barlow, etc. had involved him expanding on the ideas of others, while adding his own. The difference here is that we know exactly where Moore’s prose ends and Lovecraft’s begins, because of the nature of the round-robin; in general collaborations, Lovecraft had a tendency to re-write much of the prose himself, muddying the issue of exactly how much each writer contributed in terms of pure wordcount and conception.

Whether or not you agree that Moore should be counted amid the co-creators of the Cthulhu Mythos, she was one of the peers in the circle of Weird Tales pulpsters, and she her contribution should not be neglected.

“The Challenge from Beyond” was first published in the Fantasy Magazine Sep 1935; it has been republished and recollected numerous times since then. It is out of copyright and may be read for free online.


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

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” (1998) by Poppy Z. Brite

Now the stage is bare and I’m standing there
With emptiness all around
And if you won’t come back to me
Then they can bring the curtain down
“Are You Lonesome Tonight?”

Not many writers would say that Elvis Presley had much to do with Lovecraft; the few who would are like to take a comedic bent, as Yvonne Navarro did in “WWRD” (2018). Yet if a writer were to step back away from the Mythos and look at the themes and ideas expressed by Lovecraft in his fiction—there is a horror story to be woven from the life of Elvis, one as terrible and inevitable as all human stories are.

Poppy Z. Brite (Billy Martin) is better-known in Mythos circles for “His Mouth Will Taste of Wormwood” (1990), which has been reprinted many times, including in the seminal Cthulhu 2000: A Lovecraftian Anthology (1995).  “Are You Loathsome Tonight?” gets far less attention, and far fewer reprints. The lack of response is probably because it is not what people expect, when they come to a “Lovecraftian” story: no Mythos, no tentacles or eldritch tomes. Parts of it are passages taken directly from books about Elvis’ life, and death, interspersed with stories about snakes which intersect oddly with the rest—they fit, like pieces of a puzzle where the larger picture is still obscure. It’s Lovecraft credits are boiled down to a single quotation, appended at the very end of the text:

Atmosphere is the all-important thing, for the final criterion of authenticity is not the dovetailing of a plot but the creation of a given sensation.
—H. P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

Like “Hypothetical Materfamilias” (1994) by Adèle Olivia Gladwell and “Commencement” (2001) by Joyce Carol Oates, this is a story which stretches the bounds of “Lovecraftian.” It is a work patently informed by something Lovecraft wrote, yet not dependent on any of his individual creations. The narrative is nontraditional, the atmosphere it develops is one of slowly growing disquiet, rather than cosmic horror.

Images, interposed, become conflated by context. The roiling bolus of snakes in a mating ball. The terribly swollen megacolon of Elvis as he sits on his jet-black throne, drugs slowing his digestive system to a terrible crawl. It takes the imagination of the reader to fit the pieces together, to suggest a greater horror than reality…and there is an art and skill in the arrangement of those pieces, to make readers take that approach. The terrible inevitability of the piece lends a sense of apprehension to the whole affair—because most everyone should know how this ends. Elvis, even in death, is a figure larger than life, his semiotic ghost pervading the popular culture.

The craft of the story can be seen especially in the beginning and the ending; the title and the closing quotation of Lovecraft. The title is a reference to Elvis’ 1960 hit, yet with the twist: what is loathsome? Is it what Elvis would become, as years of abuse took its toll? The title sets up the sense of apprehension, the situation-normal-all-fucked-up; it hints at the reader what to expect—and Lovecraft, at the end, tells them what they just read. What the reader sought, or experienced, whether or not they recognized it at the time.

“Are You Loathsome Tonight?” was first published in the collection of the same name, and has been reprinted in Self-Made Man (1999), The Children of Cthulhu (2000), and is available on kindle. Poppy Z. Brite/Billy Martin currently has a GoFundMe campaign.


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

 

“Pugelbone” (2010) by Nadia Bulkin

For it is of old rumour that the soul of the devil-bought hastes not from his charnel clay, but fats and instructs the very worm that gnaws; till out of corruption horrid life springs, and the dull scavengers of earth wax crafty to vex it and swell monstrous to plague it. Great holes secretly are digged where earth’s pores ought to suffice, and things have learnt to walk that ought to crawl.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Festival”

Set in an unknown but recognizable tomorrow. In the crowded urban structure known as the Warren, people live in close proximity. Isolated from the outside, both physically and economically, the Meers (Meerkats) grow up in the crush of humanity, amid an urban ecosystem grown subterranean and strange with a new horror, one the children call…Pugelbones.

“Pugelbone” is not a Cthulhu Mythos story; there are no quotes from the Necronomicon, no reference to any recognizable corner of the Miskatonic Valley, no alien gods and sinister cults. Yet Nadia Bulkin’s story is built up from a base of Lovecraftian literary DNA, like a slab of artificial meat grown in a lab. A product of the strange and marvelous now, hacking the genetic material of “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls” and building it back up into something you can sink your teeth into.

The protagonist Lizbet was born a Meer. A girl that just liked to break things. An outsider among an outsider group, she is at once sympathetic and unreliable. All she wants is custody of her daughter—and the only way to get it is to interact with the unsympathetic bureaucracy as represented by Dr. Roman. These are adult fears: poor people trapped in a system they never built or opted in to, trying to navigate the weird social spaces of interviews with indifferent people that decide their fate. “Pugelbones” is Lizbet’s story—the story she tells Dr. Roman, to try and win back her daughter, and the story of telling that story, as Roman deflates, dismisses, and directs the conversation. A “passive listener” that has all the power in the relationship, and diminishes Lizbet with insinuation.

Yet Dr. Roman never denies the essential reality of the Pugelbones.

In Lovecraft’s stories like “The Lurking Fear” and “The Rats in the Walls,” the underground space—a favored personal image which appears in his stories—contains or did contain other horrors: a teeming mass of humanity or near-humanity. Societies that set themselves apart, to live, work, breed, and die down there. Written before Lovecraft’s period in New York City, it is still tempting to see an echo in these stories of urban fears, the great crowded tenements and filthy streets. Contemporary concerns, expressed in Lovecraft’s own language and filtered through his own prejudices, but still tapping into the 1920’s zeitgeist. Lovecraft’s stories are told from the interloper’s perspective, from those who had not been born and  bred.

What would “The Lurking Fear” read like, if told from the perspective of a Martense?

[…] a degenerate squatter population inhabiting pitiful hamlets on isolated slopes. Normal beings seldom visited the locality till the state police were formed, and even now only infrequent troopers patrol it. […] With whimpering insistence the squatters told tales of a daemon which seized lone wayfarers after dark, either carrying them off or leaving them in a frightful state of gnawed dismemberment; while sometimes they whispered of blood-trails toward the distant mansion.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “The Lurking Fear”

Nadia Bulkin’s story works because some of those horrors present in the early 20th century still haunt us in the early 21st century. The poor may not be seen as “gently descending the evolutionary scale” as Lovecraft put it, but the Meers are no less the subject to prejudice and stereotype. Lizbet is subject to the same prejudices that Lovecraft’s Catskills white trash, with the added bonus of being a woman, and a single parent, with all the additional onus that brings. These are all adult fears, the kind of tangible horrors of desperation that can face anyone today. Bulkin taps into the same zeitgeist as Lovecraft did; her story works because the situation is presented so realistically.

The Pugelbones are the element of the weird which is interwoven with the more mundane horrors of child protective services and overpopulation, and like many Lovecraftian horrors they are very material entities. An undiscovered species, urban predators. The truth about them is not half as terrible as Dr. Roman’s towing the official government line about their existence, or her insinuations about Lizbet’s relationship with them. They are the great mystery of the piece, only half-glimpsed through the Meer’s story, their presence told in piles of trash and smears of blood.

Yet the story is theirs, as much as it is Meers: these Lovecraftian beasties are essential to the piece, and Bulkin wisely keeps them off the page for most of it. Readers get hints of them long before they see them, rumors and legend before the Pugelbones appear in a scene. Rather than being specifically horrific themselves, the Pugelbones are the catalysts for the human horrors; the outside element that disrupts the human narrative, like the xenomorphs of Ridley Scott’s Alien, the one terrible unpredictable event which starts off the cascade of adult fears.

Chthonic_FC_01-712x1024Nadia Bulkin’s “Pugelbone” first appeared in ChiZine (Oct-Dec 2010), and was reprinted in her collection She Said Destroy (2017), and Cthonic: Weird Tales of Inner Earth (2018). Bulkin has been prominent the last few years in various anthologies, and her corpus of Lovecraftian and Mythos fiction includes “Red Goat Black Goat” (2010), “Truth is Order and Order is Truth” (2014), “Violet Is The Color Of Your Energy” (2015), “Pro Patria!” (2015), “There Is A Bear In the Woods” (2016), “I Believe That We Will Win” (2016), “Empire Down” (2017), and “A Dream, and a Monster at the End of It” (2017).


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

“Keeping Festival” (1997) by Mollie L. Burleson

I first “met” Lovecraft around 1950, when I saw Orson Welles read “The Rats in the Walls on TV. I was stunned. Later I searched for Lovecraft at libraries, book sales, and just about everywhere. Finally in 1971 I found a copy of Best Supernatural Stories of H. P. Lovecraft. I wrote an inscription in it stating how happy I was to find it! […] He took me to Marblehead (Kingsport, as I soon learned), and we met Ken Neily there to celebrate the real Yuletide. What a wonderful experience that was. We went there for fifteen years, never missing a one. We went in sleet, snow, ice, rain, etc. In time, other lovers of HPL joined us […]
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 47

Marblehead, December 21st. Lovecraft aficionado Paul wants to experience Yuletide in Kingsport, for the first time, to try and find something of what inspired Lovecraft to write “The Festival”—and finds, along the way, an unexpected bit of company. A three page story which is not exactly an homage to Lovecrat’s fiction, but to the meaning of that fiction to one person. A prose poem about the experience of Lovecraft’s fiction, which  can be both solitary and intensely personal or a shared and communal.

As with “I Had Vacantly Crumpled It into My Pocket … But By God, Eliot, It Was a Photograph from Life!” (1964) by Joanna Russ, there is a degree of awareness involved in this story. “Keeping Festival” establishes quickly that Lovecraft existed, as a writer of fiction, as he does in the world we know; there is never a suggestion, as is sometimes popular in works like Robert Bloch’s Strange Eons (1978), that the Cthulhu Mythos is also real—the world presented is as close to a realistic and accurate portrayal of contemporary Marblehead as possible. It is not, strictly speaking, a fantastic story at all but an episode from life.

Until a nameless man arrives to share the experience, one as immediately familiar to Cthulhu Mythos fans as the appearance of a particular beekeeper would be to Sherlockians. At this point, the brief sketch dips into magical realism—or perhaps just a daydream—as the stranger takes their leave, and Paul is left in a sublime moment of reliving a scene from their story.

Without being a sequel or prequel or in any way a part of the narrative of Lovecraft’s “The Festival,” Burleson’s is nevertheless completely beholden to it. In three pages she tries to capture something like fifteen years of Yuletide gatherings on the same scene. Not for the sake of Lovecraftian horror, or to add on to the Cthulhu Mythos, or as a commentary on Lovecraft’s fiction but as a testament to how it made her feel. The old familiar ritual, the desire for a communion with Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who had walked those snow-laden streets which he had set down on paper in 1923.

On each 21st, Don would stand on the steps of the church, prototype of the one in “The Festival,” and recite from it with all of us looking on, beginning with “The nethermost caverns are not for the fathoming of eyes that see.”
—Mollie Burleson, The Providence Pals 48

Is the reader then a participant, or a witness? Context is important. This is not a story for the uninitiated: readers without a fair familiarity with “The Festival” are not going to pick up on the references to that story, just as readers unfamiliar with Lovecraft himself will not pick up on the Easter egg of the piece. This is the kind of short fiction that can really only be written to an audience already steeped in Lovecraftiana—and combined with the realistic and almost sentimental tone, it’s perhaps no surprise that its one and only appearance in print is the relatively obscure Return to Lovecraft Country (1997).

Mollie Burleson has written a handful other pieces of Lovecraftiana and Mythos fiction, including “The Buglight” (1994), “Literary Remains” (1996), “The Dome” (2010), “Hotel del Lago” (2014), “The Quest” (2016), and “A Yuletide Carol” (2016), but is probably best remembered for her essay “The Outsider: A Woman?” (1990, Lovecraft Studies #22/23), which suggests an alternative and influential reading of Lovecraft’s story.


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