“Lovecraft Thesis #5” (2021) by Brandon O’Brien

The man you say brought us here is a kind of prophet.
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

Every Lovecraftian thesis in O’Brien’s collection includes a soundtrack; for #5 it is Visions of Bodies Being Burned (2020), Track 6: Make Them Dead, by clipping. An experimental hip-hop piece of carefully constructed distortion, slow to start, building in speed and lyricality. The track provides added context for the thesis; one should be read with the other, not rushing through O’Brien’s free verse, but savoring the way the lines scan. Like good poetry, and good lyrics, there is something more there than just a clever bit of wording or an evocative image.

Lovecraftian is a state of mind. There’s no hard definition, and it means different things to different people. For folks like W. H. Pugmire, “Lovecraftian” was an aesthetic, a mood, an attitude. You don’t need Cthulhu or tentacles to be Lovecraftian;  you don’t even need Lovecraft. The idea is bigger than the man or his fiction, and sometimes it can be crafted in a poem or found by chance in the verse of a song. Every person who comes to Lovecraft and his work brings with them their own experience, their own syntax through which to view and define what “Lovecraftian” means for them—and can put their own stamp on what is Lovecraftian.

Does it bear repeating that the caliber of racism he espoused in his heyday of the 1910s to the 1930s was not uncommon among white Americans? Of coure—but it would be a sorry excuse, as if to imply racism was some unaboidable product of circumstance rather than the deliberate ideology of spiteful people, some of whom may be honestly otherwise remarkable (much to the benefit of that spite). There is no shame or cruelty in observing this. He was a truly remarkable creative mind, but one whose creativity was colored by a misguided value of monoculturalism.

Science fiction is a radical genre, but that fact is a neutral one.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 68

The “Lovecraft theses” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? are meditations on a theme, but deliberately ambiguous, letting the reader fill in the gaps. The language is evocative of Lovecraft’s themes, but there are no proper names to hang certainties on. In other poems in this collection, like “Kanye West’s Internet Bodyguard Aks Hastur to Put Away the Phone,” the specificity and pop culture references are played for laughs, surreal humor masking the darker reflections, in the vein of Kanye West—Reanimator (2015) by Joshua Chaplinsky.

how they huddle around warped symbols,
pledge fealty to idols long since dust,
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

For myself, reading these lines about the hooded figures, listening to this track, I’m reminded of Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark. Yet one could just as easily read this as a poem of the fantastic, of any group of cultists; even absent its context, the track, the author’s note, the other poems in the collection, it speaks to familiar themes, people staring into the past, defined by hate and a kind of fanatical devotion. The tenor of the thesis has that kind of Lovecraftian universality to it, picking up its color and timbre from its context.

O’Brien knows what he is doing.

This is not the only work that has taken the most recognizable parts of the Cthulhu mythos and reshaped them for thoughtful and critical effect.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 70

One of the key points of the 2010s and 2020s has been not necessarily a rising awareness of Lovecraft’s racism—that was never a secret, and no serious biography has ever shied away from the subject—but a rising awareness that there is a body of literature in response to that, whether it be “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders, “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle, Harlem Unbound (2017) by Darker Hue Studios, or The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin. Anyone that accuses these writers of whipping a dead horse is missing the point: the issue at hand is not berating Lovecraft for his racism, but demonstrating that Black people have a voice in Lovecraftian fiction too. They get to have their part in defining what “Lovecraftian” means to them, to tell Cthulhu Mythos stories in their own way, reflective of their own interests and experiences, just as white people have been doing for decades.

After all, in terms of Cthulhu, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is. There is no reason a Black character cannot be the protagonist of a Lovecraftian story, cannot experience the same sense of cosmic horror and insignificance that Lovecraft’s white protagonists did. The experience of cosmic fear should ultimately be colorblind.

“Lovecraftian thesis #5” is a little different.

The end goal of this collection is in the same spirit as those works, but hoping to accomplish the inverse: for Blackness ot be seen as radically significant.
—Brandon O’Brien “Author’s Note” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 70

You can see that in a close reading of the verse. The identity and the perspective of the speaker is critical: they are not among the group of hooded figures, they are apart, watching, questioning. In the first line, the speaker specifies “The man you say brought us here”—the speaker is addressing the audience, and identifying as part of a group that was brought somewhere against their will, set against these hooded figures—you don’t have to see the speaker as a former slave set against the Ku Klux Klan, but you can see how that experience could have informed those words.

What else than to own the carcass
of a land already bought in blood?
—Brandon O’Brien “Lovecraft Thesis #5” in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021) 59

All five “Lovecraft theses,” along with other poems by Brandon O’Brien can be found in Can You Sign My Tentacle? (2021).


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.

Ring Shout (2020) by P. Djèlí Clark

I think whether one reads Lovecraft or not, his influence is all over genre—from television shows like Buffy to Marvel concepts of cosmic world-devouring beings like Galactus. So you grow up with it. Then you read Lovecraft and you’re like, uhhh, this guy is pretty problematic. And some of the xenophobic meanings behind unknowable horrors lurking on the edge of human civilization give you serious pause. But you still dig tentacles. What are you to do? Give up tentacles altogether? Now you got no tentacles to like, because the guy from way back was a serious ass? Thing is, marginalized people have been ingesting problematic things in SFF, from dark elves on down, and loving it through our gritted teeth—since forever. This isn’t a new thing for us. So when we’re fortunate enough to get the chance to flip the script, to use those same tentacles to tell stories from different perspectives, we take it. And I think there are lots of readers, consumers of Genre of all backgrounds, who with relief are like, “finally…”
—P. Djéli Clark interviewed by Daryl M,
Interview With an Author: P. Djeli Clark (17 Dec 2020)

In 1905, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan was published, the second in a trilogy of novels set in the South during the period of Reconstruction. That same year, it was adapted into a play and premiered on the stage. A full decade later, the play and novel were adapted into an epic film, The Birth of the Nation (1915)—and on the night of its release, a second Ku Klux Klan was founded. Within a few years, chapters would spread throughout the country; membership would escalate into the millions by the 1920s, and even expand into Canada at the height of the new Klan’s power and influence. Fractious groups descended from or inspired by the Klan persist to this day.

The persistent lies and historical revisionism of The Clansman and The Birth of a Nation did not go unopposed. Protests were held against both play and film, the nascent NAACP made an organized effort to get the film banned from theaters, reviews criticized the historicity of the film. At the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, a brick thrown through the plateglass window of the box-office spurred armed police to charge the crowd protesting the screening. In a pair of self-published magazines, two amateur journalists briefly argued over the film, among other issues of race and prejudice (see “Concerning the Conservative” (1915) by Charles D. Isaacson).

Ring Shout is not a novel concerned with what H. P. Lovecraft thought about the Ku Klux Klan. P. Djéli Clark centers his fantasy novel on those whom the revived Klan aimed themselves against: Black people, immigrants, communists, LGBTQ+ folks. The style borrows from urban fantasy: it is a recognizable contemporary period, and a secret war is being waged. The enemy is not white people, at least, not all white people. There are monsters that lurk beneath the white hoods; people that have let themselves become so consumed by hate that an otherworldly infection has set in. The heroes who fight them still live under Jim Crow, face persecution for the color of their skin, their gender, their sexuality, even their politics.

Clark weaves together fact and fiction, real elements of Gullah culture and fictional folklore. The combination is compelling; Ring Shout does not need to drop familiar names like Cthulhu or Yog-Sothoth, and if it draws inspiration from Clive Barker’s “The Hellbound Heart” (1986), it is only that: inspiration. Ring Shout weaves its own mythos together, carves out its own space…and it works all the better for that. It builds off many of the ideas that have been popularized in the Mythos, but does so in its own way, unbeholden to any previous writer. In this way, it is more free than efforts to depict the Black experience of the Mythos in stories like “Jeroboam Henley’s Debt” (1982) by Charles R. Saunders or “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle.

In less skilled hands, Ring Shout could easily have become a mere power fantasy. The KKK, because of their militant prejudice and involvement with racial violence are almost as easy targets as the Nazis. Little sympathy is wasted for men who dressed up in white hoods to burn crosses, terrorized Black people and immigrants, and participated in numerous murders and lynchings over a period of decades. That all of this was in service to the rather banal evil of promoting racism as a profit-making enterprise doesn’t engender any additional sympathy, either (see Hatred and Profits: Getting Under The Hood of the Ku Klux Klan). As it is, Clark’s characters show little sympathy for human members of the Klan—but they do not go out of their way to kill and terrorize them either. Their fight is with the monsters, and that raises the conflict conflict to a philosophical level.

He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby becomes a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil 

Maryse Boudreaux fights monsters in Ring Shout, and her struggle is a pulpy, action-heavy fantasy where she can literally use a magic sword forged from centuries of pain to fight back against the literal monsters that have fed the hate against her, her family, and everyone that looks like her. Yet the philosophical struggle she faces is one which many people of color have faced, and continue to face: whether to allow the hate and pain inflicted on her to define who she is. Whether to meet racism with more racism, hate with more hate, violence with more violence…and where and how do you draw the line?

At the every end of the novel, a brief setup is given for a potential sequel:

“A new threat rises,” Auntie Ondine goes on. She leans in. “You must go on a quest! To an isle within the Province of Rhodes!”
I stop mid-sip. “You mean Providence, Rhode Island?”
She blinks. “Isn’t that what I said? The enemy has their eyes fixed there—on a man they believe can help them further infilitrate your world, open doors to worse than their Grand Cyclops. They’re inculcating him with their vileness and he appears a willing vessel. He has been named their Dark Prince and—”
—P. Djéli Clark, Ring Shout (2020) 180

This is neither the first time Lovecraft has been tied to the KKK in posthumous literature: Richard Lupoff had Lovecraft become entangled in a plot involving the Nazis and KKK in his novel Lovecraft’s Book (1985), later republished as Marblehead (2015), to give one example. Clark is being tongue-in-cheek with this little reference, and Ring Shout has nothing to do with Lovecraft’s thoughts on the Klan…but Lovecraft may help readers better understand an aspect of this novel, if we read what he wrote about the Ku Klux Klan in 1914 in his amateur journal The Conservative:

Mr. Isaacson’s protest is directed specifically against a widely advertised motion picture, “The Birth of a Nation”, which is said to furnish a remarkable insight into the methods of the Ku-Klux-Klan, that noble but much maligned band of Southerners who saved half of our country from destruction at the close of the Civil War. The Conservative has not yet witnessed the picture in question, but he has seen both in literary and dramatic form The Clansman, that stirring, though crude and melodramatic story by Rev. Thomas Dixon, Jr., on which “The Birth of a Nation” is based, and has likewise made a close historical study of the Ku-Klux-Klan, finding as a result of his research nothing but Honour, Chivalry, and Patriotism in the activities of the Invisible Empire. The Klan merely did for the people what the law refused to do, removing the ballot from unfit hands and restoring to the victims of political vindictiveness their natural rights. The alleged lawbreaking of the Klan was committed only by irresponsibile miscreants who, after the dissolution of the Order by its Grand Wizard, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, used its weird masks and terrifying costumes to vein their unorganised villainies.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “In A Major Key,” Collected Essays 1.56

There is no evidence Lovecraft ever did any “research” into the KKK, and his statements make it clear that any reading he could have done on the subject must have been from sources promoting the Lost Cause. He makes no reference to the violence that accompanied the political intimidation, the loss of life and property, and unspoken but implicitly stated is the disbelief in the validity of the fourteenth and fifteenth amendmants. Lovecraft is parroting the anti-Reconstruction myth propogated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Dunning school.

The horror in this statement is not that it’s Lovecraft that said it in 1915—it is that this is what millions on millions of people in the United States believed was true during the early 20th century, even long after Lovecraft was dead. Lovecraft was ignorant and racist, but he was one man. Ring Shout is set during a time when any white person in the United States might have made, and believed, similar claims. Lovecraft never put the KKK into any of his stories, never joined the Klan, never participated in a lynching, and in later life changed his views (at least on the second incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan), but in this instance we may turn to Lovecraft as an example of how those ideas were put into words. What people thought and believed.

They took The Birth of a Nation not as propaganda, but as history.

Ring Shout is a novel about people fighting monsters under the guise of the Ku Klux Klan. It is also a novel about how people subject to pain and discrimination struggle to not let that hate define who and what they are. Yet neither of these things is the same as fighting and overcoming racism. That is the ultimate horror that Ring Shout leaves us with. Even if a sequel is written, and Lovecraft is a willing vessel to terrible entities from beyond, and the heroes win through in the end…there will still be millions of Americans that continue to believe the same lies, to propogate the same hate, to cast the oppressors as the victims and the victims as monsters who must be defeated.

You cannot kill racism with a magic sword.


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.

Le Bol Maudit (1982) by Enki Bilal

Et tu sauras ce que je sais…tu connaîtras par ce bol, les secrets les plus terrifiants, car comme moi tu es damné… par Yuggoth le maudit prends!!!
—Enki Bilal, Le Bol Maudit 2

And you will know what I know … you will know by this bowl, the most terrifying secrets, because like me you are damned … by Yuggoth the evil take this!!!
—English translation

“Le Bol Maudit” (“The Evil Bowl”) was the first story that Enki Bilal published, in the Franco-Belgian magazine Pilote in 1971. Over the next few years, Bilal would publish several more short stories in Pilote, including “A tire d’aile” (“On the Wing”), “Ophiuchus” (from the Greek, “Serpent-bearer”), “La chose a venir” (“The Thing To Come”), “Ciel de nuit” (“Night Sky”), “Kling Klang,” “Le mutant” (“The Mutant”), and “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil” (“Close the shutters and keep your eyes open”).

Most of these were very short black and white affairs, some only a couple pages long, with surreal and science fiction themes: astronauts, aliens, mutants, dreams—that would see much broader exploration in his more well-known and longer works such as Légendes d’Aujourd’hui (with Pierre Christin) and the Nikopol trilogy, which was partially adapted in the film Immortel (2004). These early works by Bilal were later collected, first by Minoustchine in 1975 as L’appel des étoiles (“The Call of the Stars”, 1975), containing only five stories, and then by Futuropolis in Le Bol Maudit (1982) containing eight. An English translation of the Minoustchine volume (reprinting “The Evil Bowl,” “On the Wing,” “Ophiuchus,” “Pulse” (“La chose a venir”), and “Close your shutters and watch out!”) was published by Flying Buffalo as The Call of the Stars (1978).

“The Call Of The Stars,
or the dark destiny of men called on by
the unutterable and inconceivable unknown.
Four stories with a Lovecraftian touch,
plus an authentic dream-nightmare voyage
I experienced with my tender companion
To whom I dedicate this collection dark with hope.”
Enki Bilal
—Back cover text of The Call of the Stars

In this early work, Bilal is displaying many of his influences very openly; there are gorgeous full-page compositions that show the influence of Philippe Druillet’s Lone Sloane, which was also published in Pilote for a period; scenes inspired rather blatantly from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), and there are stories like “Ophiuchus” which is essentially an adaptation of, or at least a variation on, H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Bilal hadn’t quite reached his distinctive style of art and storytelling yet, but he was definitely on his way.

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Pages from “Le Bol Maudit”

“Le Bol Maudit” has the most explicit references to Lovecraft, although these are basically just Easter eggs for fans. Appreciation for Lovecraft blossomed in France, and in the Franco-Belgian comics circles during this periods, which would culminate in the special Lovecraft issue of Metal Hurlant in 1979, and still continues today in works like La Planète aux Cauchemars (2019) by Mathieu Sapin & Patrick Pion

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Panels from “Ophiuchus”

From a Lovecraftian standpoint, “Ophiuchus” is probably the most interesting, however. “Beau Rivage” (“Beautiful Shore,” “Pampona Beach” in the Flying Buffalo translation) is an intriguing variation on Innsmouth. A city of an alien race, human enough but decaying, mutating, shunning the sun, participating in the strange cult of Ophiucus until, the distant constellation. None of Bilal’s stories attempt horror, exactly, although a few of them have that surreal twist reminiscent of the Twilight Zone. In this respect, Bilal’s twist on Lovecraft’s ending is fitting: it is one thing to be an outsider among a crowd, not knowing why you don’t belong, and something else again to know yourself truly and completely…and know exactly why, and why you can never go home again.

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Page from “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil”

The most ambitious story, artistically, is the last one: “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” a surreal, fantastic dream-voyage of a young man and woman, with some incredibly elaborate crosshatching and a kind of plot like a more mature, Tolkien-esque version of Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo.” There are some creatures and places here that would not be out of place in Lovecraft’s Dreamlands, although there is no explicit connection made. Like Lovecraft and Randolph Carter, Bilal inserts himself into his work now and again, most deliberately and explicitly in “Fermez les volets et ouvrez l’oeil,” where he is the male dreamer.

Taken all in all, Le Bol Maudit is a fun collection; the individual stories don’t build up into anything bigger, but they provide an interesting insight into Bilal’s earliest work, and a few nice little Lovecraftian Easter eggs for fans. The Flying Buffalo translations leave a little something to be desired; and chunks of the text go from serif to sans serif without warning. While apparently Bilal did his own lettering, parts of the English translation (translator and letterer uncredited) look like they were done with a typewriter, while others were lettered by hand or used stencils. It would nice to see a new translation into English, perhaps including the stories that never made it into the Flying Buffalo volume…but whether that will ever happen, who can say?

Thanks to Dave Haden at Tentaclii for pointing out a couple things I missed.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which could well be said of Barlow himself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“The Artist’s Retreat” (2011) by Annabeth Leong

Do you crave intellectual tentacle porn?
—Ad copy, Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

What is “Lovecraftian erotica?” If you rule out erotic works that directly parody or refer to the stories Lovecraft wrote, such as “Herburt East: Refuckinator” (2012) by Lula Lisbon or “The Ape in Me: A Tale of Lovecraftian Lust” (2016) by Raine Roka; his creations such as Cthulhu and the Necronomicon in works like “Le Pornomicon” (2005) by Logan Kowalsky or Mother Hydra in “Pages Found Among the Effects of Miss Edith M. Teller” (2005) by Caitlín R. Kiernan; those rare erotic works that refer to or depict Lovecraft directly as a character—as in Edward Lee’s Trolley No. 1852 (2010)—then what you have left is a very vaguely defined body of erotic materials which that take more nebulous inspiration from Lovecraft’s ideas of cosmic horror and the tropes of Mythos fiction that came later, but don’t directly attempt to incorporate the man or the Mythos.

For many Lovecraftian erotic works, the tropes and set dressing are usually as far as the author cares to take things. Tentacles often make their appearance, ancient gods or eldritch entities come when summoned, sacrifices are usually less than virginal and surprisingly enthusiastic, and the whole pornographic scenario often reads like a bootleg X-rated session of the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game. Lindsey Purl’s erotic triptych Tentacles of the Elder Gods (2013), which involves “Kum-Shaggurath” is an exemplar of this kind of fiction. Quality and creativity varies; few works are erotic classics, but are often packaged and sold as disposable literature. Intended as flash entertainment, they answer to a momentary need, often as part of a brief zeitgeist, and then quickly sink out of sight into online back catalogs or other form of obscurity.

Then you have works like Annabeth Leong’s “The Artist’s Retreat.”

The dreams were confused and irresolute, but there was nothing vague about the position in which I work. I snatched my hand from where it lay nestled between my legs and tried to ignore the throbbing there. Sweat soaked the pillows and bed beneath me, and the sheets were tangled around my legs as if I’d been rolling from one side of the bed to the other all night. Sometime, I’d managed to yank my nightshirt up and off one arm, leaving one breast free to the chill air of my dark and silent room. Shivering, I pulled the garment down and fathered my blankets more tightly around me.
—Annabeth Leong, “The Artist’s Retreat” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

The distinction between “The Artist’s Retreat” and any other work of Lovecraftian fiction, like say “From the Cold Dark Sea” (2016) by Storm Constantine, is one of degree rather than kind. Leong’s work is in an anthology of erotic Lovecraftian fiction, and the erotic element appears early and grows more intense throughout; it is a central part of the plot, where in most other Lovecraftian works sex is usually not the primary focus of the narrative lens. That aside, the work is really nothing less than an original story that draws obvious inspiration from Lovecraft and the Mythos without feeling the need to directly invoke or squeeze itself into the framework of the Mythos.

The distinction shifts the reader’s focus from looking for tie-ins or how the story might into the bigger picture of Mythos lore and instead the reader might begin to see “The Artist’s Retreat” as something that fits into Lovecraft’s milieu, and pursues some of his themes, yet in a way that Lovecraft and most of his co-creators in the Mythos would never have put together. There are the same-gender heterosexual friends, one of them an artist; very much a Lovecraftian pairing…until they become something more. There is the setting, in a rural Massachusetts that Lovecraft might find familiar, but not in any named and denoted part of his Lovecraft Country. There is the tricky distinction of that thing, seen and unseeable, which invokes Lovecraft’s “The Colour Out of Space,” Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla,” Ambrose Bierce’s “The Damned” thing…yet what it does under Leong’s direction is nothing like what any of those authors would have their creations do.

“The Artist’s Retreat” is, after all, Lovecraftian erotica.

Many writers appear to find it difficult to pursue both weird and erotic themes simultaneously. Lovecraft in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” emphasized:

The one test of the really weird is simply this—whether or not there be excited in the reader a profound sense of dread, and of contact with unknown spheres and powers; a subtle attitude of awed listening, as if for the beating of black wings or the scratching of outside shapes and entities on the known universe’s utmost rim. And of course, the more completely and unifiedly a story conveys this atmosphere, the better it is as a work of art in the given medium.

It is a rare story that can both scary and erotic; that can work that atmosphere of the sense of outside contact with the intensely grounded sensations of physical eroticism. Not impossible, because for all their differences, there are points of commonality: the sense of heightened awareness brought about by sexual arousal and the fear-response, the titillation and excitement when it comes to approaching and then violating some taboo, the psychological impact and physical consequences that may result from such sudden violations, with all their long-term ramifications…these are the building blocks of erotic horror, as shown in works like Ramsey Campbell’s “The Faces at Pine Dunes” (1980) and his exquisite novel The Darkest Part of the Woods (2003).

Part of what makes “The Artist’s Retreat” successful is the atmosphere. The pacing is steady, but takes its time setting up each scene, providing small climaxes for each chapter, letting the protagonist Edie sink deeper and deeper into the mystery and the renewed friendship with her painter friend Olivia. there aren’t any huge surprises; the plot might almost be called formulaic in how the Lovecraftian protagonist is compelled to leave their familiar surrounds for an isolated local, where they sink into strangeness—it worked for Lovecraft in “The Festival,” and it worked for Silvia Moreno-Garcia in Mexican Gothic (2020), and it works for Annabeth Leong here. There is absolutely nothing wrong with playing a familiar plot straight, so long as it is done well…and it helps that the weird parts are refreshingly weird, not just a priapic Cthulhu.

The cryptic images did not depict any shaps or beings I know—still, they stirred me. I got to my knees beside Olivia, and together we explored the contours of the boulder. I could not piece together an overall image of the design. Neither could I decode any individual piece. But the longer I ran my fingers over it, and the longer I knelt beside her and stared, the more I began to see flashes of meaning. Two coiled appendages, wound around each other and rubbing their undersides together obscenely; what could have been a thousand tiny fingers caressing a swollen, monolithic shaft; a long and muscular tongue, curved into a suggestive question.
—Annabeth Leong, “The Artist’s Retreat” in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011)

Leong’s story fits well into an anthology of Lovecraftian erotica, but it could fit just as well into a mainstream Lovecraftian anthology. Nothing of the weird atmosphere is sacrificed for the erotic, and nothing of the erotic is sacrificed for the weird. They work together, hand in hand, and while they echo the ways sex was used as an entry point for beings from outside in Lovecraft’s fiction—think of “The Dunwich Horror”—the way that it works is ultimately original, fresh, and well done.

“The Artist’s Retreat” by Annabeth Leong was published in Whispers in Darkness: Lovecraftian Erotica (2011) by Circlet Press. Her other Lovecraftian works include “Our Child” in Conqueror Womb: Lusty Tales of Shub-Niggurath (2014) by Martian Migraine Press.


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

The White People (2015) by Ibrahim R. Ineke

I agree with what you say about suggestion as the highest form of horror-presentation. The basis of all true cosmic horror is violation of the order of nature, and the profoundest violations are always the least concrete and describable. In Machen, the subtlest story—”The White People”—is undoubtedly the greatest, even though it hasn’t the tangible, visible terrors of “The Great God Pan” or “The White Powder”. But the mob—including Farnsworth Wright—can never be made to see this; hence W.T. will always reject work of the finest and most delicate sort.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 4 Oct 1930, A Means to Freedom 1.52

Comics and graphic novels (and increasingly film and television shows) which seek to adapt Lovecraftian concepts onto the page often face an immediate difficulty: not just how to balance the words and pictures, but how much not to show and not to tell. It isn’t just the question of whether the entity should appear, or only be glimpsed in part, or revealed in full. It’s a question of how far do you admit that there is an entity at all, how and when do you bring up the concept. How far can you get the reader’s imagination to run, and in which direction? How do you establish and maintain that horror-mood which pervades such stories as Arthur Machen’s “The White People”?

For Machen, much of the success of his “The White People” was in being very specific in many details, and very circumspect in others. He avoided proper names; gave few physical descriptions; yet the diary entries are detailed, vivid. The discussions around them are weighty and philosophical, the people discussing what has happened see more in what is going on than the individual who purportedly wrote them. There is more going on than it seems…

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In print, an author might write out “indescribable.” How does an artist actually draw or paint that? Ibrahim R. Ineke in the 48-pages of this graphic novel shifts presentation and technique in a very Machenesque way. Stark blacks give great detail, except where they disappear into shadow; white gives terrific definition, until they became great blank swathes where bright sunlight has blinded the reader to all detail. The chiaroscuro gives way to color, kaleidoscopic in intensity and combination; pen-and-ink linework gives way to xerography. Style and medium both work to conceal many things, while throwing others in sharp relief. Like Machen, Ineke is feeding the reader details, while letting our imagination fill in the blanks, both light and dark.

It is all in service to the story. Not a pleasant story, but a disturbing one, laid out with all the care of a detective story. Ineke’s “The White People” is not a straight adaptation of Machen’s “The White People,” it inspired by, it carries some of the same energy, the same ideas, but it isn’t a retread of any particular story. It stands as a testament to what an artist can do in the medium—something between Bruce Jones and Berni Wrightson’s “Jenifer” and Jeffrey Jones’ Idyl I’m Age, and comparing very favorably to Black Stars Above (2019) by Lonnie Nadler & Jenna Cha.

Yet what makes Ineke’s “The White People” really effective is that like with Machen’s “The White People” it is essentially a kids story. Not a story for kids by any means (due to some graphic nudity), but about kids. Innocent, playful, not knowing what horrors are out there. That’s the essence of “The White People” as Machen wrote it, and it is in essence what Lovecraftian horror is like for all readers. To look where you shouldn’t, and have a bit of innocence stripped away.

Wherever there is horror, secrets are revealed. Ineke states this most directly when he writes “It’s always the woods, isn’t it?” Despite our continuous advances in science and reason, education and culture, the woods remain an untamable place—a site that is the very definition of nature, yet which continuously unleashes “unnatural” evidences. Despite Machen’s warnings, Ineke has found it necessary to re-enter this territory and present his findings to us.
—Amelia Ishmael, introduction to The White People (2015)

Ibrahim R. Ineke’s The White People (2015) was published in regular hardcover and deluxe hardcover editions by Sherpa. A preview of the contents can be seen on Issuu.


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

“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” (2011) by Naomi Novik

In September [1917] I went to the 7th 8th Battalion of the Inniskilling Fusiliers. we used to be in front of Croisilles, when we were in the line, and in a sunken road through the village itself when we were in reserve. When we were out of the line we lived at a place that had been Ervillers, four miles back, where the bombing planes used to call us every morning, but never hit us. That was in the desert of the Somme.  We never saw any animals there except mice, and an army horse or two; and, when the rooks flew over at evening, they passed out of our sight before they could find trees. There was something melancholy in watching this flight over a land that for centuries had been fertile: it was pleasanter to look at our aeroplanes returning at about the same hour, like adventurous mountaineers descending cloud-mountains. Sometimes we met American soldiers there, who for some while had been arriving in large numbers, men with red healthy faces.
—Lord Dunsany, Patches of Sunlight (1938) 296

The success of The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases (2003) led to a sequel: The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011). The first book is essentially a standalone volume similar to The Starry Wisdom Library (2014): a collection of short fictional works done in the style of a reference guide, with all the fantastic, science fiction, weird, and supernatural ailments and symptoms pretending to co-exist in the same setting. The Cabinet of Curiosities is nominally framed along the same lines, as items in the fictional Thackery T. Lambshead’s eccentric collection, but the guidelines on what constitutes an “entry” are less rigid…so what it really turns out to be is a collection of disconnected pieces of various lengths and styles. Some resemble actual write-ups like one might find in a good SCP wiki entry, and others are simply short stories with, perhaps, a note at the end that explains how it got to be part of Lambshead’s collection. Some of them don’t even have that.

The trench had scarcely been dug. Dirt shook loose down upon then, until they might have been part of the earth, and when the all-clear sounded at last out of long silence, they stood up still equals under a coat of mud, until Russel bent down and picked up the shovel, discarded, and they were again officer and man.

But this came too late: Edward trudged back with him, side by side, to the more populated regions of the labyrinth, still talking, and when they had reached Russell’s bivouac, he looked at Edward and said, “Would you have a cup of tea?”
—Naomi Novik, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 118

Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany, was one a writer’s writer. Never a bestseller, he was still highly esteemed by many as one of the greatest fantasists to ever live, and one of the most influential. His stories of “beyond the fields we know,” written briefly around the turn of the century, would provide the inspiration for H. P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and for “The Call of Cthulhu.” During his service in the British Army during World War I, the 39-year old Anglo-Irish peer was appointed a Captain in the Royal Inniskilling Fusilliers, and spent time in the trenches in France, where this story is set.

After the war was over, Lord Dunsany would travel on a tour of the United States. In Boston in 1919, a 29-year old H. P. Lovecraft would be too self-conscious to ask his idol for an autograph.

You come to the trenches out of strangely wasted lands, you come perhaps to a wood in an agony of contortions, black, branchless, sepulchral trees, and then no more trees at all. The country after that is still called Picardy or Belgium, still has its old name on the map as though it smiled there yet, sheltering cities and hamlet and radiant with orchards and gardens, but the country named Belgium—or whatever it be—is all gone away, and there stretches for miles instead one of the world’s great deserts, a thing to take its place no longer with smiling lands, but with Sahara, Gobi, Kalahari, and the Karoo; not to be thought of as Picardy, but more suitably to be named the Desert of Wilhelm. Through these sad lands one goes to come to the trenches. Overhead floats until it is chased away an aëroplane with little black crosses, that you can scarcely see at his respectful height, peering to see what more harm may be done in the desolation and ruin. Little flashes sparkle near him, white puffs spread out round the flashes: and he goes, and our airmen go away after him; black puffs break out round our airmen. Up in the sky you hear a faint tap-tapping. They have got their machine guns working.
—Lord Dunsany, “A Walk to the Trenches” in Tales of War (1918)

For all that Dunsany’s fiction has been lauded by the likes of Lovecraft & co., the writer himself never quite developed the same mythology about him. There are fewer stories about Dunsany the man than there are about Lovecraft. This may in part be due to the fact that Lord Dunsany himself was around for quite a bit longer: his writing career of 50+ years was longer than Lovecraft himself was alive, and Dunsany produced several volumes of autobiography…much of which, perhaps strangely, failed to touch on his inner life. He had been a sportsman, who hunted game big and small all over the world; chessmaster; heir to an old title in the British peerage; a soldier, a husband and father, a writer of poetry, fiction, wartime propaganda, plays…he corresponded with a young Arthur C. Clarke, and if her didn’t invent the club story with his Jorkins tales, he may well have perfected it.

There’s been quite a bit written about Dunsany, and he himself wrote quite a bit, but he failed to really make that leap into myth that had others write about him in the same way as Lovecraft. Which is one of the things that makes Naomi Novik’s story stand out in the second Lambshead anthology. That rare story that touches on Dunsany the myth.

He lifted off the lid and showed Edward: a lump fixed to the bottom of the post, smooth, white, glimmering like a pearl, irregular yet beautiful, even with the swollen tea-leaves like kelp strewn over and around it.
—Naomi Novik, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 122

The magic of the teapot to me is more that it offers dreams, fantastical ones, and for both of them, in the midst of that dreadful war, to be able to dream and for a little while escape the reality of the grinding machinery of death, that was what brought them both peace.
—Naomi Novik, Year’s Best 2012: Naomi Novik on “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” (Erin Stocks)

Ironically, if there is a problem with “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” as a story, it’s not nit-picks about army life or the state of the Somme in the fall and winter of 1917, or any other fact of the real world or Dunsany’s life. It’s the implications of the teapot itself. As totemic artifacts go, 1917 is a bit late in Dunsany’s career to come into possession of the thing. Lord Dunsany had written nearly all of his fantasy fiction before his service in World War I, and relatively rarely ventured back there afterwards. If it had come to him during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), before he wrote The Gods of Pegāna (1905), it would be more fitting to explain his fantasy output.

Of course Novik never suggests that the teapot at all inspired Dunsany’s fantasies—his writing is never actually mentioned in the story itself—and that’s kind of its own little oddity too. It definitely feels like a story where the reader is expected to shoulder a good bit of the narrative heavy lifting: and that is sort of characteristic with many of H. P. Lovecraft’s fictional appearances—Lovecraft works as a character because of the familiarity of his image with fans. Lord Dunsany doesn’t quite have that much exposure. Readers are presumably supposed to recognize the name in the title (Lord Dunsany) and then know or intuit that Edward is Edward Plunkett, Lord Dunsany. Anything beyond that is presumably getting into the weeds.

Then again, the real hardcore Lord Dunsany fan knows that it should probably have been not a teapot, but a hat:

He cannot explain a flight of fancy, save to call it what it is, and thus can’t tell the “source” for Pegāna, which is probably just as well. But he does put forth a wealth of information about his writing methods,* his artistic credo, his early experiences in the theatre, and his interests in literature.

* One, which he doesn’t bother to mention, but which Lady Dunsany related to Sprague de Camp, was that he always sat on a crumpled old hat while composing his tales. Perhaps it had magical properties; but, alas, some visitor to Dunsany Castle made off with it, so we’ll never know.
—Darrell Schweitzer, Pathways to Elfland: The Writings of Lord Dunsany 139

This is one of those anecdotes that is almost impossible to source, but L. Sprague de Camp does mention his friendly relationship and correspondence with Lord Dunsany’s wife (and later widow) Beatrice, Lady Dunsany, so there’s no reason to discount it out of hand. Like Tolkien’s ashtray, it’s one of those odd real-life artifacts about which the speculation is probably much more fun and interesting than the reality.

“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” is illustrated with a single picture, which bares a curious caption:

Yishan Li’s depiction of Lurd Dunsany’s Teaport, from the forthcoming Novik-Li graphic novel “Ten Days to Glory: Demon Tea and Lord Dunsany.”
The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities 119

Said graphic novel never came out, although Naomi Novik and Yishan Li did collaborate on another graphic novel, Will Supervillains Be On The Final? (2011). Publishing projects fall apart all the time, but despite the nitpicks above, it’s unfortunate that this didn’t happen. At longer length, with such a talented artist, “Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” could have been a really interesting work—and if there is a paucity of good stories about Lord Dunsany as a fictional character, he and his works are hardly ever adapted to comics or graphic novels.

“Lord Dunsany’s Teapot” was first published in The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (2011) and was reprinted in The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror: 2012 Edition (2012).


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

Black Stars Above (2019) by Lonnie Nadler & Jenna Cha

At length we observed a total change in their demeanour. From absolute stupor they appeared to be, all at once, aroused to the highest pitch of excitement, and rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances, and shouting, at the top of their voices, Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!
—Edgar Allan Poe, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838)

Of course common reading is what prepared us both to make the interpretation, though Danforth has hinted at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago. It will be remembered that in that fantastic tale there is a word of unknown but terrible and prodigious significance connected with the antarctic and screamed eternally by the gigantic, spectrally snowy birds of that malign region’s core. “Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!” That, I may admit, is exactly what we thought we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist—that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range.
—H. P. Lovecraft, At the Mountains of Madness (1936)

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Black Stars Above was published as a five-issue series from Vault Comics in 2019-2020, and collected in a trade paperback in 2020. The creative team was Lonnie Nadler (writer), Jenna Cha (artist), Brad Simpson (colorist), and Hassan Ostmane-Elhaou (letterer).

They tread rare territory.

Canada, 1887. Eulalie Dubois, a young Métis woman living on the edge of things with her family, trading moccasins and skinning muskrats. Yet at night she reads The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and hopes one day to escape this life. There’s fascinating intersectionality there—youth and gender and race, all mixed up and coming together. Then it gets weird.

There were Canadian pulp magazines. Not just the Canadian edition of Weird Tales, but home-grown pulps by Canadian artists, writers, and publishers, set in Canada. Where the United States had Westerns, there was also a market for Northerns, pulp stories and novels set in Canada’s Northwest Territories, often investigated by Mounties as in Tales of the North-West Mounted Police (Sep 1933). Like the Westerns, the Northerns were concerned with Canada’s frontier—the extremes of climate and survival that comprised man vs. nature, the stress on human relationships that added frisson to man vs. man, and out at the edge of the known world…sometimes things slip over into man vs. supernature.

There are a few “Weird Westerns” out there. Not so many “Weird Northerns.”

Contrast Jack London’s “To Build A Fire” (1902), which is a straight survival story with shades of psychological horror, and Algernon Blackwood’s “The Wendigo” (1910), where the extremes of the environment is only the beginning of the horror, the prelude to things. There are stranger things in the Northern woods, and plenty of mundane horrors—Nadler and Cha give us a taste of that in the opening chapter. A grandfather whose leg was cut off by Mounties. A mother discriminated against for being First Nations. A daughter sold into marriage, as long as she passes for white…

One of the key aspects of frontier fiction—Western, Northern, Sword & Planet, etc.—is the primary motivation for going into that frontier. Sometimes it is altruistic: Star Trek went on a mission to explore and investigate, to scribble in the borders of the map. Often, it’s meaner: people want to exploit the resources and indigenous peoples, make their fortune, and get out, as in H. P. Lovecraft and Kenneth Sterling’s “In the Walls of Eryx” (1939).

Black Stars Above plays with motivations very strongly and with great intent. Not just Eulalie Dubois in her mission, but everyone else in the story has some reason to be there, some hope or need or order that drove them beyond where they should have gone. Which drives them still, far past where they should have turned back. That is part of what makes the story work, above and beyond the weirdness that is very Lovecraftian but which does not make any attempt to tie in explicitly to the Cthulhu Mythos or any other; despite the reference to “black stars” and the obvious influence of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow there’s no other direct connection to the Yellow Mythos as with “Slick Black Bones and Soft Black Stars” (2012) by Gemma Files or “While The Black Stars Burn” (2015) by Lucy A. Snyder. It borrows the weird cry from The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but that is exactly all that it is: the cry of the weird. Out beyond the unknown, signifying something that can’t be deciphered.

There are great and terrible hints, but this is a narrative that does some of its best work by choosing to show rather than tell. Jenna Na’s art works well because when things are real, the panels are sharp and defined, close and intimate; and when she pulls back for the wider shots…when the gutters fade away…the dreamlike quality is stark and beautiful but somehow more epic in perspective.

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Brad Simpson’s colors add depth to the artwork. It would have been easy to leave this black-and-white, let the chiaroscuro hit the reader between the eyes, but the colors make the “real” portion of the story seem more real, and the “unreal” portions more strongly bizarre by contrast. There are a lot more shadows of darkness that can be shown with blues and reds than just white and black.

With the handwritten journal pages and Lovecraftian focus, it’s tempting to compare Black Stars Above with Alan Moore and Jacen Burrow’s Providence (2015-2017), and Lonnie Nadler does acknowledge the influence:

And just in terms of trying to do similar things, Alan Moore’s Providence. It’s definitely an influence on Black Stars Above, but I think it does different things, and more powerful things with responding to Lovecraft, in that it’s a direct response to Lovecraft and only to Lovecraft. (Well, I guess Chambers, too). I love that book. It doesn’t get enough credit in Alan Moore’s body of work. He said what he was trying to do was what Watchmen did with superheroes, Providence was trying to do for Lovecraft. And I think he very much accomplished that. And anyone who is a fan of Lovecraft, I think should read it, because it’s, it’s densely intelligent and rich. And I might like it more than Watchmen. And I say this, like, as someone whose favorite comic is Watchmen. I don’t know why, but people didn’t seem to latch on to that one like they do some of his other work. Maybe because Neonomicon was so off-putting to people.
—Robert Secundus, “Lonnie Nadler Part II: On ‘Black Stars Above,’ Margaret Atwood and why trains are weird” (28 Jul 2020)

Black Stars Above does do different things than Providence. For one, Eulalie Dupois does not follow Robert Black in suicide after the final revelations. Both of them faced the choices of simply going with the flow, to continue to exist without making waves. Neither of them could face that. Simply existing on the edge of things is not winning, even if the heart is beating and blood is pumping. Settling for a life of quite desperation on the end of everything, trapped in a life you don’t want…

For so many characters in such narratives, death is the only escape from the frozen hell.


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

Mexican Gothic (2020) by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This novel dramatic paraphernalia consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, longpersecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, mostly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like. All this paraphernalia reappears with amusing sameness, yet sometimes with tremendous effect, throughout the history of the Gothic novel; and is by no means extinct even today, though subtler technique now forces it to assume a less naive and obvious form.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Silvia Moreno-Garcia would probably agree with H. P. Lovecraft in that there was nothing more insipid than the traditional heroine of the Gothic novel. Which is why the heroine of her Gothic novel is a spurt of new blood in the veins of an old and decaying family, one able to pull a trigger when she has to, and light a cigarette when she wants to. For all that Moreno-Garcia consciously pays homage to the tropes of the Gothic novel, make no mistake: this is a fresh story, a slow burning, slow building tale that goes unexpected places and does so with confident skill and creative flourish.

Gothic fiction was a primary influence on H. P. Lovecraft, and much of his early Poe-inflected fiction especially can be considered as “modern Gothics.” When you read “The Rats in the Walls” with its family mystery, the ancient Priory with its haunted legends, the ghostly skitter that the cat chases—that is an echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” and before that Horace, Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto. Readers who ignore this school might find that they’ve missed some excellent fiction, and Lovecraft himself noted:

Indeed, we may say that this school still survives; for to it clearly belong such of our contemporary horror-tales as specialise in events rather than atmospheric details, address the intellect rather than the impressionistic imagination, cultivate a luminous glamour rather than a malign tensity or psychological verisimilitude, and take a definite stand in sympathy with mankind and its welfare. It has its undeniable strength, and because of its “human element” commands a wider audience than does the sheer artistic nightmare. If not quite so potent as the latter, it is because a diluted product can never achieve the intensity of a concentrated essence.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “Supernatural Horror in Literature”

Mexican Gothic is what it says on the cover. Not just “a Gothic novel set in Mexico,” but an original Gothic novel which could not be written except in Mexico. It would not have the same effect if the protagonist Noemí Taboada was an American cousin, the relationships in the story would be entirely different; the Doyles would not be the same if the story was set in New Mexico versus Old Mexico, because the historical events and prejudices that they carried with them and experienced would be entirely different. The story carries its sense of place with it right down to its bones, which is something Lovecraft himself would no doubt have appreciated.

Readers who know Silvia Moreno-Garcia for her Mythos fiction and as editor/publisher at Innsmouth Free Press might be looking for Mexican Lovecraft connections. After all, Lovecraft set a story in Mexico involving a mine (“The Transition of Juan Romero”), played with Aztec mythology (“The Mound” with Zealia Bishop), and revised another story about a miner in Mexico (“The Electric Executioner” for Adolphe de Castro)—but there are no copies of the Necronomicon in the Doyle library, not even a copy of Moreno-Garcia’s own El Culto de los Muertos from The Starry Wisdom Library.

Mexican Gothic is not a novel of the Cthulhu Mythos. But it is a very Lovecraftian one.

[…] all the people in the family seemed to have that similar physiognomy, which she was dubbing in her head “the Doyle look.” Like the Habsburg jaw of Charles II, only not quite as concerning. Now that had been a case of sever mandibular prognathism.
—Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic 126

There are a number of themes in the book that echo some of Lovecraft’s stories; it’s hard not to see a shadow of unspoken sexual relationships of “The Thing in the Doorstep,” the strange ‘scandals’ of “The Dunwich Horror,” and terrible near-destruction of the family by one of its members a la “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”—but this isn’t just a mix-and-match of ideas from Lovecraft and old Gothic tropes. Silvia Moreno-Garcia knows what she’s doing, and if she deliberately re-purposes a few old stones in the house she’s building, it’s because they’re the right size and shape, not because they’re the closest thing at hand.

Which really comes into sharp focus in the character of the Doyle family. In a Lovecraft story, a Mexican character like Noemí Taboada would be the outsider, intruding into the narrative with a corrupting presence; the Doyles almost certainly see themselves as Lovecraftian protagonists and view her as an outsider. Yet in the narrative of Mexican Gothic, it is clear that it is the Doyles who themselves are the intrusive element: the aliens that refuse to be assimilated, who cling to their own traditions and live apart, pursuing their strange and disturbing practices.

Any change which involves an interference with a developed race’s folkways and language and cultural integrity is cruelly deplorable—but in each threatened case it is up to each neutral power to decide whether armed intervention is really justified in the interest of general civilisation. However—in practice, most nations do instinctively draw a line betwixt the civilised and the definitely non-civilised. […] Sometimes a nation forms a sort of borderline case—Mexico being an example. As a whole, Mexico has enough of an established Hispanic civilisation to win it a place in the instinctively favoured category, but this is not true of all its parts. When at various times the U.S. took sections of its southern neighbour, these sections were among the least settled and civilised—hence the gradual Americanisation. But if we were to conquer the entire country in some future war, it seems certain that the intensively developed central area containing the capital would be granted a cultural autonomy like that enjoyed by Puerto Rico.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard, 7 May 1936, A Means to Freedom 2.930

From a Lovecraftian point of view, the Doyles and their mansion form an enclave or colony of English civilization in Mexico; having conquered and “civilized” a portion of it. Yet to the actual Mexicans, the Doyles are greedy, unlovely, incestuous (recall Lovecraft’s claim that several of his ancestors had consanguineous marriages), and as one wise woman put it: cursed.

Readers familiar with Howard Phillips Lovecraft will find many commonalities with Howard Doyle, patriarch of this clan. Doyle’s obsession with scientific racialism, and his verbal sparring with Noemí on the topic, are a different way of addressing Lovecraft’s prejudices than N. K. Jemisin did in The City We Became (2020). Where Jemisin’s characters mocked Lovecraft’s beliefs from the safe vantage point of Lovecraft being long dead, Noemí has to deal with a very real racist who in 1950s Mexico clings to ideas more suited to the 1890s. The tenseness of the encounter plays against the racial tensions of Mexican history as well as Lovecraft’s personal prejudices: Noemí is neither ashamed of her indigenous heritage, nor does she see herself as particularly defined by that. She is first and foremost a contemporary Mexican, and doesn’t care to be slotted into Doyle’s categories.

Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
I think I’m obliged to say I’d like to reconstitute Lovecraft using his essential salts. I did my thesis work on him and feel in a strange way that I grew up with him. In a way, he was one of my best friends as an awkward kid growing up in Mexico City—which sounds bizarre, but it’s true. I don’t know, however, how the conversation might go. It would probably be very stilted. […] As for talking, I like to talk about books nobody knows about and old movies, so I’d probably show Lovecraft Get Out and Annihilation, and see what he thinks.
—Jared Jackson, The PEN Ten: An Interview with Silvia Moreno-Garcia (9 July 2020)

The slow build-up of the first two-thirds of the book gives way to a precipitously fast descent into hell in the last third. All the hints and suggestions planted lead to a genuinely and fantastically weird climax. The book is worth reading twice just to pick up on some of the care with which the first part of Mexican Gothic is built on, and without which the book as a whole would have fallen apart. Shades of “Arthur Jermyn” again in the final conflagration—but as with “The Fall of the House of Usher,” there’s a certain inevitability to it all. The House of Doyle was always a tinderbox, waiting to be ignited by any stray spark…and no one tells Noemí Taboada that she can’t smoke.


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

The City We Became (2020) by N. K. Jemisin

“Cover up that shit,” Bronca snaps at them. “Took me a minute, but I get it now. ‘Dangerous mental machines,’ hah.” […] “Yeah, that was H. P. Lovecraft’s fun little label for folks in Chinatown—sorry, ‘Asiatic filth.’ He was willing to concede that they might be as intelligent as white people because they knew how to make a buck. But he didn’t think they had souls.”

“Oh, but he was an equal-opportunity hater,” Yijing drawls, folding her arms and glaring at the men. “In the same letter, he went in on pretty much everybody. Let’s see—Black people were ‘childlike half-gorillas,’ Jews were a curse, the Portuguese were ‘simian,’ whatever. We had a lot of fun deconstructing that one in my thesis seminar.”
—N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became 148

And of course the New York Mongoloid problem is beyond calm mention. The city is befouled and accursed—I come away from it with a sense of having been tainted by contact, and long for some solvent of oblivion to wash it out! …… How in Heaven’s name sensitive and self-respecting white men can continue to live in the stew of Asiatic filth which the region has become—with marks and reminders of the locust-plague on every hand—is absolutely beyond me. In fact, I’m jolly well certain that they won’t continue. New York will become a vast trading-mart for long-distance white commuters—and for the nameless spawn. When, at length, the power of the latter rises to dangerous heights of rivalry, I can see nothing short of war or separation from the union. There is here a grave and mighty problem beside which the negro problem is a jest—for in this case we have to deal not with childlike half-gorillas, but with yellow, soulless enemies whose repulsive carcasses house dangerous mental machines warped culturelessly in the single direction of material gain by stealth at any cost. I hope the end will be warfare—but not till such a time as our own minds are fully freed of the humanitarian hindrances of the Syrian superstition imposed upon us by Constantinus.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Frank Belknap Long, Jr., 21 Aug 1926, Selected Letters 2.68

Weird fiction cannot afford hagiography. For all that H. P. Lovecraft accomplished during his lifetime, for all the lives and literature he influenced, there is no point in pretending the man was a saint, his memory to be enshrined with only the good things he has done. Every author that stands on the shoulders of giants has to decide on how best to address that legacy. Some ignore it, moving past Lovecraft’s prejudices; others reinvent his Mythos, put their own spin on it; a few use it their fiction as a mirror to highlight Lovecraft’s racism.

N. K. Jemisin calls Lovecraft out on it.

Why not? Dead men cannot have their feelings hurt. He wrote all those words, so there’s no false reporting. The only ones likely to be upset about Jemisin’s bare handful of references to Lovecraft in the novel are those who either share in his prejudices, or are so strongly attuned to the idea of Lovecraft as an icon that they perceive a simple statement of facts as an attack.

It seems evident that Jemisin didn’t open a random book on Lovecraft and pull out the first racist quote she came across, so it’s not like the “On the Creation of…” scene in Lovecraft Country (2016) by Matt Ruff. This moment in The City We Became and those that follow it aren’t exactly essential to the novel, but certainly enrich it by expanding on themes of cosmic horror and race. The structure of the story, how the characters react to the information as they get it, how Lovecraft and his work are described, all shows effort and craft in how Jemisin chooses to incorporate Lovecraft into her book.

This is not N. K. Jemisin beating the dead horse named H. P. Lovecraft. It is a way for her to address him and his legacy on her own terms. In a 2017 interview, the question was asked and answered:

So if you’re using Cthulhu, are you an H.P. Lovecraft fan?

Oh, hell no.

This is deliberately a chance for me to kind of mess with the Lovecraft legacy. He was a notorious racist and horrible human being. So this is a chance for me to have the “chattering” hordes—that’s what he called the horrifying brown people of New York that terrified him. This is a chance for me to basically have them kick the ass of his creation. So I’m looking forward to having some fun with that.
N. K. Jemisin’s New Contemporary Fantasy Trilogy Will “Mess with the Lovecraft Legacy”

This approach can probably safely be called cathartic (NK Jemisin: ‘It’s easier to get a book set in black Africa published if you’re white’). Many writers exorcise their demons and address their issues by writing them out. It is a process which can often be as beneficial for the reader as well: how many women, how many people of color, who have felt uncomfortable knowing that Lovecraft was racist but unwilling to say anything might feel a relief to actually see it called out in print?

There are other ways Jemisin could have expressed her point. The reference to Lovecraft’s 1926 letter to Long is factually accurate, but lacks context. In 1926, Lovecraft’s New York adventure—and his marriage, in all but name and legalities—was over. He had slumped back off to Providence, Rhode Island, having been unable (like millions of others) to make his way in the city, to find gainful employment, to be with his wife and friends. Lovecraft had left Providence for New York less than two years prior, with hopes and aspirations for work, married life, a home of his own with his wife—and returned older, alone, wiser in the world, richer in experience of a thousand things. One memoir stated that:

He came back to Providence a human being—and what a human being! He had been tried in the fire and came out pure gold.
—W. Paul Cook, “In Memoriam: Howard Phillips Lovecraft” in Ave Atque Vale 43

What Cook does not add is that the stresses and failures Lovecraft had experienced in New York had brought his prejudices to a fever point; throwing himself into the “melting pot” of New York City had only exacerbated his prejudices, and for the rest of his life he would write about his hatred of the city, which he considered no longer culturally a part of the United States, but completely overtaken by immigrants and people of color. Nothing of which excuses Lovecraft’s prejudices in  his letter…but perhaps gives more context as to why Jemisin chose to focus on this particular letter.

The City We Became is not a book about H. P. Lovecraft. Jemisin’s references to him and his fiction are symptomatic of the real crux of the novel, which is the city itself. Her novel is a love affair of New York City, in the same vein as Fritz Leiber, Jr.’s Our Lady of Darkness (1977) or John Shirley’s City Come a-Walkin’ (1980) for San Francisco. A snapshot in time of New York as it is, the people that live there are represent it; an acceptance and an exorcism of old ghosts.

But she is a city, in the end—fair R’lyeh where the streets are always straight and the buildings all curve, risen from the brine-dark deep well between universes. And no living city can remain within the boundary of another while it is unwelcome.
—N. K. Jemisin, The City We Became 428

Lovecraft’s New York—the New York of Al Smith and Fiorello La Guardia, Prohibition, the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem Hellfighters—is long gone. Jemisin’s novel is about her New York, the post 9/11 New York, the New York of Lyft, IKEA, and Dunkin’ Donuts. It isn’t any less diverse, it isn’t really any weirder. Where a novella like “The Ballad of Black Tom” (2016) by Victor LaValle deals with the fictional New York that Lovecraft presented in his writings, Jemisin deals with Lovecraft himself—and finds the only real use for him as a springboard to talking about bigger things, or perhaps a bedrock of ideas and images to mine. If there is any criticism to be had of the book, it’s that it feels like having evoked Lovecraft and R’lyeh, Jemisin could have made more use out of the connections with the city…but again, this isn’t a book about H. P. Lovecraft.


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